Study: Loneliness and divorce degrade the health of men more than women


A recent study examined the links between relationship breakdowns and inflammation. Divorce or relationship breakups are associated with poorer health in men.

A new study of middle-aged adults in Denmark found that living alone and experiencing more relationship breakups is linked to higher levels of inflammation in men. The study found no such link in women.

Scientists have previously shown that, in men, divorce or relationship breakdown leads to often a decline in health and is associated with increased mortality. Relationship breakdown often leads to living alone, which is also linked to health problems.

Previous studies have found an association between social isolation and higher levels of inflammation, suggesting a potential physiological pathway. However, few previous studies have looked at how this association might work over a longer period of time. As the number of people living alone increases in Western populations, scientists are keen to understand the links between personal relationships and disease states. A recent large-scale study conducted in Denmark adds to our knowledge. The authors identified a significant association between partnership breakups or years lived alone and increased levels of inflammation in men. The study is published in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health.

Professor Rikke Lund of the University of Copenhagen in Denmark, one of the lead authors of the study , explained, “Given that increased levels of inflammation are associated with increased mortality and morbidity for a number of chronic diseases, our study contributes to a potential binding mechanism. The study used data from middle-aged people spanning 26 years of adult life . This is the first study to examine the effects of living alone for a longer or shorter period of time and experiencing zero, one or more divorces or breakdowns in cohabitation relationships.

Markers of inflammation on the rise: worsening health deterioration

Inflammation is the body’s way of defending itself against toxins, injuries and infections. Acute inflammation lasts for a few hours or days, for example after a cut in the knee. Chronic inflammation is the persistence of the inflammatory reaction. White blood cells can flood the system and attack healthy tissue. Interleukin 6 (IL-6) and C-reactive protein (CRP) are two molecules involved in the inflammation reaction. High levels of IL-6 and CRP are associated with numerous adverse health effects, such as increased risk of cardiovascular events, decreased physical and cognitive performance, and higher risk of death.

Data from a follow-up during 26 years of thousands of adults

The study team, based at the University of Copenhagen, analyzed data from the Copenhagen Aging and Midlife Biobank. In total, they used data from 4 835 participants, all aged 48 to 26 years. The data spanned 26 years, from 1986 at 2011. For 4 835 people (3 835 men and 1 442 women), the data included information on the number of ruptures. For 4 835 people (3 62 men and 1 499 women), the data included information on the number of years lived alone.

The researchers also collected information on factors that could influence the results of the study. These included education level, weight, medical conditions, major early life events, medications that may influence inflammation, personality traits, and any recent episodes of inflammation. Participants provided blood samples to assess levels of IL-6 and CRP as an indication of levels of inflammation.

Different results in men and women

After adjusting for a series of potentially confounding variables, scientists found that in men, a greater number of relationship breakups or years of living alone was associated with an increase in inflammatory markers compared to a reference group of men who had not experienced relationship breakdown or who had lived alone for 0 to 1 year.

The greatest increase in inflammation levels occurred in the group of men who experienced the most breakups: two or more. Compared to the reference group, they showed levels of inflammatory markers 17% more students. Similarly, men who had lived alone the longest, 7 years or more, had higher levels of inflammation of % to those of the reference group. The study found no such effect in women. These results suggest that men, not women, are significantly disadvantaged by relationship breakups or living alone.

A few years of loneliness or a few breakups are not health risk factors on their own, but the combination of several years of loneliness and several breakups creates an increased risk of elevated inflammatory markers in men.

Why are the results different in women?

The authors offer a number of possible explanations for why women were not affected by the same way as men. First, it could be that women derive less health benefits from marriage. If this is the case, a rupture would entail less risk of deterioration of health. Second, there is evidence that young men have a greater inflammatory response than women, which may persist later in life. The authors also note that the group of women participating in the study was relatively small, which could mean that a true association was not detected.


Do partnership dissolutions and living alone affect systemic chronic inflammation? A cohort study of Danish adults

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