Do Kids of Divorce Have Strokes More Often?

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Of all the odd and unexpected consequences of divorce — missing kitchen utensils, kids with two sets of everything, a weird sense of sadness yet liberation — this is a new one. A cross-sectional study of 13,000 Canadians found that people whose parents had divorced had significantly higher risk of stroke in later life, compared with those whose parents stayed married.

The study, conducted by University of Toronto professor Esme Fuller Thompson and graduate students Angela Dalton and Rukshan Mehta doesn’t prove that a couple’s divorce will cause strokes in their kids. But it does find an intriguing association: the children of parents who split had twice the odds of stroke of people of the same age who grew up in a family that remained together. (More on Can an iPhone App Save Your Marriage?)

The researchers, who presented their findings at The Gerontological Society of America‘s annual meeting in New Orleans on Nov. 22, controlled for education, income, race, sex, diabetes and other variables. Even when adjusted for all that, the association remained. “The link does not appear to be due to adult health behaviors, adult socioeconomic status, mental health or diabetes,” says Fuller Thompson.

As far as the researchers are aware this is the first study that has come upon this connection and Fuller Thompson cautions that the results need to be replicated by somebody else. “There are several potential mediators we could not investigate in this study,” she says, including diet, cholesterol levels, blood pressure, family history of stroke, childhood socioeconomic status. (More on Were You Born This (Un)Happy, or Did You Marry Into It?)

That last one may be a doozy, since divorces, especially those of, say, 50 years ago (when the stroke sufferers in the study would have been children), were probably rarer, more stressful and more likely to impoverish their mothers, who were less likely than modern women to have been employed outside the home.

But that’s just a hypothesis. “Research on childhood poverty and on childhood abuse suggests that severe and chronic stress in childhood can adversely impact the way that child will physiologically respond to the stressors they face across the whole life course,” says Thompson Fuller. “Hopefully future research could shed some light on what role, if any, cortisol [the fight or flight hormone we produce when stressed] plays in the parental divorce-stroke association.” (Related Links: Open-Mouthed Laughs Are Contagious)

Fuller Thompson next wants to analyze other large representative community studies to see if the link crops up in those as well. And she hopes others will do similar studies on other health issues. “Hopefully this study will inspire other researchers to consider whether parental divorce is associated with other physical health outcomes.”

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