A Connection Between Parental Divorce and Death?

Longevity Project: Parental divorce biggest social predictor of early death.

Posted May 05, 2011

Aghast. I was aghast. As a science writer who has gone through a divorce, then reconciled with and remarried my ex-husband, I've got sneaking, well-founded suspicions about the impacts of divorce.

But this was almost unbelievable. Except it was true. Heart sinking, I was reminded of the reasons for my misgivings about divorce.

It was bedtime, and I was wide awake and riveted. My review copy of the recently released The Longevity Project by Howard Friedman (a PT blogger) and Leslie Martin had arrived that day, and I lay propped-up in bed, engrossed in Chapter 7: Parental Divorce.

The Longevity Project--to be clear--is, perhaps, one of our very best and most unique scientific studies on health, well-being, and long-life. This study began in September of 1921 (that's no typo) when a Stanford University psychologist, Lewis Terman, pulled young, bright children from their classrooms and interviewed them about pretty much everything. He had the visionary notion to interview some 1,500 kids to see whether he could "identify early glimmers of high potential." (see the New York Times review)

It turns out that this group of "Terman children" were tracked and interviewed repeatedly throughout life--and as a result the study went far beyond its original intentions. Many of the subjects outlived Terman himself. Some lived to ripe old age while others died young. That's where Friedman and Martin come in. They've, "spent the past twenty years following up...and investigating why some people thrive well into old age while others die prematurely."

The power of this study rests in the volumes of meticulous detail collected about the lives of nearly 1,500 individuals, as well as the fine points acquired for each person's death. You just don't get data like these every day. In fact, it's safe to say that these are the only data of their kind in existence.

Perhaps the most immediately surprising thing about it, say the authors, is that, "...we've discovered that many common health recommendations are ill-advised or simply wrong. We've replaced those with more accurate guideposts to a longer, healthier life."

Well that's good news. The book covers 15 chapters of topics related to health and long life. They include, for instance, Chapter 12: Confidants, Networks, and the Power of Social Life; Chapter 8: Running for Their Lives: Jocks vs. Nerds; and Chapter 13: The Gender Gap in Long Life.

Indeed, there's such scope and detail blended together in the authors' careful, circumspect tone that some of its urgent findings may be less obvious than they deserve. Or worse, some results may be difficult or painful to accept.

A case in point: That chapter keeping me up at night, Parental Divorce.

With this uniquely powerful data set, the researchers had an opportunity to ask a question that, so far, had been unanswerable. They write:

It is well established the divorce can be harmful for the children, at least in the short term. But what about in the long term? Could the child's experience of divorce be related to mortality risk many years in the future?

Had anyone ever even thought to ask that question?

The authors expound on the dearth of such inquiry:

Health researchers haven't much considered or investigated whether the divorce of one's parents and related family problems in childhood would create a significant risk for later heart disease, cancer, and other health threats...

It is very rare to be able to follow children from divorced families for many decades into the future. Little was known about long-term health effects until we began our studies of the Terman participants.

Friedman, Martin and their colleagues devised a clever but heartbreaking way to assess the impact of divorce on longevity. They compared kids whose parents had divorced to those who had lost a parent through death--both experiences are, the authors write, "events that shatter families."

Mind you, while I sat propped up in bed reading, I was nodding along in agreement at their question--having started to learn more about the real risks of divorce. But I suspected many readers might find the notion of comparing divorce to the death of a parent, abhorrent.

Surely, I could imagine some folks thinking, that is an unfair comparison...

Yet the authors address this, saying, "Although losing one's parent to divorce might seem better than losing a parent through death," their results, they write with their characteristic low-key subtly, "found the opposite."

Found the opposite? You mean that the death of a parent is less important to children's long-term health than the divorce of their parents?


Rather the death of a parent had no impact on kids' eventual longevity while divorce cut lifespan an average of nearly five years. (That's with all other factors accounted for.)

They write:

The long-term health effects of parental divorce were often devastating--it was a risky circumstance that changed the pathways of many of the young Terman participants. Children from divorced families died almost five years earlier on average than children from intact families. Parental divorce, not parental death, was the risk.

In fact, parental divorce during childhood was the single strongest social predictor of early death, many years into the future.


Are you the child of divorce? Are you divorced with children? Do you ever wonder if there is more to the story about the impacts of divorce than most of us realize?

In future posts, I'll talk about what these researchers found out about which kids of divorce fared better--which ones lived longer and why. And more about why they found the alarming result they did. With more understanding, perhaps we can ameliorate the risks.

Do you have questions, too? I sure did. I'll be considering these as well. Please write with yours.

Additional PT blog reviews of the LP are here:

  1. What Is the One Essential Key to Long Life?
  2. Maybe This Time It Will Stick: ‘Get Married and You'll Live Longer' Is a Myth
  3. The Secret to Longevity - It's About Character, Not Just Calisthenics
  4. Don't Retire
  5. Can Your Job Kill You?

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