Divorce and Heart Disease
By Dr. Whitney Wall
The emotional impacts of divorce are undeniable. Individuals going through the
divorce process report high levels of stress and experience consuming emotions
such as guilt, sadness, fear, hopelessness, and confusion. The widely used
Holmes-Rahe Stress Inventory ranks divorce as the second most stressful life
occurrence - second only to the death of a spouse. Divorce inherently involves
many life transitions. Primarily, there is the loss of a significant relationship.
Secondarily, the redefining of other important relationships with family, children,
community, and self. Even when divorce results in personal growth and greater
life fulfillment (as it often does), the process of getting there is undoubtedly
arduous and stressful.
Stressful life events impact not just our emotional selves, but our whole selves -
mind, body, and spirit. With a growing understanding and appreciation of the
mind-body connection, research has explored the physical impacts of stress on
the body. Findings to date suggest that chronic stress is more damaging to our
physical and psychological selves than acute stress, or a one-time stressful
event (e.g. witnessing a crime). Divorce is not a one-time event. It often involves
a series of events, conversations, disputes, and arrangements that create an
experience of persistent stress. The repetitive nature of chronic stress, as
opposed to acute stress, taxes the body’s neurological response system and is
associated with illness.
Chronic stress is a widely known risk factor for heart disease - the number one
cause of death in the United States. A recent study by Duke University provides
more evidence of this and identifies a direct association between divorce and the
probability of experiencing a heart attack. In a sample of over 15,000 evermarried
adults, women who had experienced a single divorce were 24% more
likely to experience a heart attack when compared to married women who had
never been divorced. With two or more divorces, women were 77% more likely to
experience a heart attack. Men had a 30% higher heart attack risk after two or
more divorces. Furthermore, the longitudinal nature of the study showed that the
increased risk of heart attack persisted long after divorces were finalized and
even after remarriage among women.
While heart disease is the number one cause of death among both men and
women - the onset of the disease traditionally occurs later for women. As a
result, research suggests that women are less likely to receive important heartrelated
education during healthcare visits and are less likely to be referred for
heart-related screenings and treatments when compared to their male
counterparts. Therefore, it may be especially important for women who are
divorced to inform their doctors of this risk factor and advocate for heart-related
At first, this news may feel discouraging, especially for women who are divorced.
However, knowledge is power. While the experiencing of major life stressors,
such as divorce, may render one more susceptible to heart attacks, heart
disease itself is still largely considered to be preventable with diet, exercise,
preventative screenings/treatments, and stress management. In addition to
utilizing traditional coping skills for stress management, such as exercise,
meditation, and social support, it can also be helpful to use evidenced-based
problem solving techniques when stressful obstacles arise, such as
brainstorming, decision balancing, and active communication.
These tools may be most productive when implemented collaboratively with a
therapist who specializes in divorce. Additionally, co-parenting workshops offer
psychoeducation and support without an extensive time commitment and can
provide a good foundation for approaching problems in a more productive way.
Finally, co-parenting therapy or family therapy can help ease the stress
associated with childrearing during and post divorce by incorporating a neutral
professional into the decision making processes and providing additional
emotional and logistical support.
With greater awareness, steps can be taken to control stress and mitigate the
damaging effects of divorce - making more space for the positive transformation
that often emerges from our most difficult life experiences.