Divorce & Separation Increase Heart Attack Risk

By Stephen T. Sinatra, M.D., F.A.C.C., F.A.C.N., C.N.S., C.B.T.

If healthy marriages are good for couples’ mental and physical health, as is widely accepted, what about the 40-50 percent of unhealthy marriages that end in divorce? New studies published in 2015 provide some interesting perspectives to the question. Researchers at Duke University found that, compared to continuously married individuals, divorcees are more prone to heart attacks.

In their report in the American Heart Association journal Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes, they said divorce is a “significant risk factor” for heart attack, and that the risks associated with multiple divorces are especially high in women and “are not reduced with remarriage.”

The researchers had analyzed the marital and health status of more than 15,000 adults aged 45 to 80 monitored from 1992 to 2010. About 14 percent of the men and 19 percent of the women in the database were divorced at the start of the study; more than a third were divorced one or more times by the end of it. About 8 percent suffered a heart attack; the risk was elevated only among men who divorced more than twice, and not among men who remarried.

Meanwhile, according to a report in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine written by David Sbarra, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at the University of Arizona, most people cope well and are resilient after a separation or divorce. There is, however, an increase in the overall risk for poor health, primarily due to a small percentage of people (10-15 percent) “who struggle quite substantially.”

 My Viewpoint: Divorce, of course, is a major life stressor with the potential to affect financial, emotional, and physical health status. In the famous Holmes-Rahe Stress Inventory used by psychologists to determine the impact of various stressful events in life, divorce ranks No. 2 and marital separation No. 3 behind death of a spouse. In my practice over the years, I treated heart attack cases that were clearly brought on in individuals who didn’t want separation.

 What This Means to You: In situations where the stress of separation is great, people may indeed cope poorly. They adopt unhealthy lifestyle habits. They don’t care what they eat. They take to alcohol. They may lose a desire to live. There is no doubt in my mind that the emotional stress of a nasty divorce can generate heart damage and heart attacks. I’ve seen it happen. It is well known that psychological factors frequently precipitate cardiac arrest.

 My Recommendation: In cases where a separation is highly stressful, an individual must find emotional support in friends, family, psychotherapy, spiritual counseling, and/or some kind of diversionary activity. There is no simple one-size-fits-all solution. Each person must find his or her own coping mechanisms in order to avert the danger of heartbreak and heart disease, as well as other stress-related problems.


© 2015 HeartMD Institute. All rights reserved.

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