Marital Troubles Can Lead To Physical Ones, Too.
In a series of experiments, scientists at Ohio State studied the relationship between marital strife and immune response, as measured by the time it takes for a wound to heal. The researchers recruited married couples who submitted to a small suction device that left eight tiny blisters on the arm. The couples then engaged in different types of discussions — sometimes positive and supportive, at other times focused on a topic of conflict.
After a marital conflict, the wounds took a full day longer to heal. Among couples who exhibited high levels of hostility, the wound healing took two days longer than with those who showed less animosity.
Divorce, It Seems, Can Make You Ill
By Tara Parker-Pope for The New York Times on 3 Aug 2009
New research shows that when married people become single again, whether by divorce or a spouse’s death, they experience much more than an emotional loss. Often they suffer a decline in physical health from which they never fully recover, even if they remarry.
And in terms of health, it’s not better to have married and lost than never to have married at all. Middle-age people who never married have fewer chronic health problems than those who were divorced or widowed.
The findings, from a national study of 8,652 men and women in their 50s and early 60s, suggest that the physical stress of marital loss continues long after the emotional wounds have healed. While this does not mean that people should stay married at all costs, it does show that marital history is an important indicator of health, and that the newly single need to be especially vigilant about stress management and exercise, even if they remarry.
“When your spouse is getting sick and about to die or your marriage is getting bad and about to die, your stress levels go up,” said Linda Waite, a sociology professor at the University of Chicago and an author of the study, which appears in the September issue of The Journal of Health and Social Behavior. “You’re not sleeping well, your diet gets worse, you can’t exercise, you can’t see your friends. It’s a whole package of awful events.”
The health benefits of marriage, documented by a wealth of research, appear to stem from several factors. Married people tend to be better off financially and can share in a spouse’s employer health benefits. And wives, in particular, act as gatekeepers for a husband’s health, scheduling appointments and noticing changes that may signal a health problem. Spouses can offer logistical support, like taking care of children while a partner exercises or shuttling a partner to and from the doctor’s office.
But in the latest study, researchers sought to gauge the health effects of divorce, widowhood and remarriage in a large cohort of people over time.
Among the 8,652 people studied, more than half were still married to their first spouse. About 40 percent had been divorced or widowed; about half of that group were remarried by the time of the study. About 4 percent had never married.
Over all, men and women who had experienced divorce or the death of a spouse reported about 20 percent more chronic health problems like heart disease, diabetes and cancer, compared with those who had been continuously married. Previously married people were also more likely to have mobility problems, like difficulty climbing stairs or walking a meaningful distance.
While remarrying led to some improvement in health, the study showed that most married people who became single never fully recovered from the physical declines associated with marital loss. Compared with those who had been continuously married, people in second marriages had 12 percent more chronic health problems and 19 percent more mobility problems. A second marriage did appear to heal emotional wounds: remarried people had only slightly more depressive symptoms than those continuously married.
The study does not prove that the loss of a marriage causes health problems, only that the two are associated. It may be that people who don’t exercise, eat poorly and can’t manage stress are also more likely to divorce. Still, researchers note that because the effect is seen in both divorced and widowed people, the data strongly suggest a causal relationship.
One reason may be changes at the cellular level during times of high stress. In an Ohio State University study, scientists analyzed blood samples of people undergoing the stress of caring for a loved one with Alzheimer’s disease. The research focused on telomeres, which insulate and protect the ends of chromosomes; with aging, telomeres shorten and the activity of a related enzyme also declines.
Compared with a control group, the Alzheimer’s caregivers showed telomere patterns associated with a four- to eight-year shortening of life span. Dr. Waite said the stress of divorce or widowhood might take a similar toll, leading to chronic health and mobility problems.
Study: Fatherless Childhood May Injure Brain Development
By James Tillman
WASHINGTON, DC, October 28, 2009 -- Recent animal research backs previous sociological research by indicating that children raised by single mothers may experience reduced brain development, leading to an increase in aggressive behavior, according to an article in the Wall Street Journal.
The findings come from research on degus, which are small rodents related to guinea pigs. Degu parents usually raise their pups together. When deprived of their father, however, degu pups exhibited developmental changes in the amygdala, the part of the brain related to emotional responses and to fear, and in the orbitofrontal cortex, or OFC, the brain's decision-making center.
According to Anna Katharina Braun, director of the Institute of Biology at the Otto von Guericke University in Magdeburg, the balance between these two parts of the brain is critical to normal emotional and cognitive functioning: if the OFC isn't active, the amygdala "goes crazy, like a horse without a rider."
Thus, an analysis of the degus' behavior indicated that the fatherless animals showed more impulsive behavior, and engaged in more play-fighting or aggressive behavior with their siblings than did the pups raised by both parents.
In the study, published in the journal Neuroscience, half the degus were raised by two parents while the other half were raised by a single mother after the father was removed from the cage one day after the birth of his offspring.
In two-parent families, Dr. Braun and her colleagues found that degu mothers and fathers cared for their pups in similar ways, including sleeping next to or crouching over them, licking and grooming them, and playing with them.
In single-parent families, on the other hand, the frequency of the mother's interaction with her pups did not change greatly, which meant that those pups experienced significantly less touching and interaction than those with two parents.
Researchers then looked at the neurons - the cells in the body that process and transmit information - of pups at day 21, when they were weaned from their mothers, and at day 90, which is considered adulthood for the species.
Neuron functioning is related to the number and length of neurons' dendrites - branch-like protrusions from neurons related the handling of information. Dendritic spines (twig-like protrusions from a neuron's dendrites) also help the neuron receive messages from other neurons.
The researchers found that at 21 days, fatherless animals had less dense dendritic spines than did animals raised by both parents. Although the density of the spines was the same by day 90, the length of some types of dendrites was significantly shorter in some parts of the brain, even in adulthood, in fatherless animals.
"It just shows that parents are leaving footprints on the brain of their kids," says Dr. Braun.
The wiring between certain brain regions in the degus is very similar to that in humans. "So on that level," says Dr. Braun, "we can assume that what happens in the animal's brain when it's raised in an impoverished environment ... should be very similar to what happens in our children's brain."
Other researchers have found similar results in different animals. Xia Zhang of the University of Ottawa and his colleagues in China have found that voles separated from their fathers exhibited more anxious behavior and were less social than those who were not separated. Their study was published in July in the journal Behavioral Processes.
Such neurological research backs a host of sociological studies that have tracked the negative developmental effects of single-parent households.
For instance, a 2004 study in the Journal of Research on Adolescence indicated that growing up without a father was associated with higher odds of incarceration later in life, even after controlling for other factors. Those who grew up in households without ever experiencing the presence of a father tended to have the highest odds of incarceration.
Similarly, a 2006 study in the Journal of Divorce and Remarriage indicated that adolescents living in single-parent families were more likely to report depressive tendencies and use of illegal drugs when compared to those living in families with two biological parents.
Approximately 25% of the children living in the US live with only one parent, according to a 2008 press release by the United States Census Bureau.