Divorce can be tough on health, no matter your age. Legal uncoupling is listed as the No. 2 stressor on the Holmes-Rahe Stress Inventory, a scale that predicts which life events are likely to cause…
Divorce can be tough on health, no matter your age. Legal uncoupling is listed as the No. 2 stressor on the Holmes-Rahe Stress Inventory, a scale that predicts which life events are likely to cause a stress-induced health breakdown within two years.
And for people age 50 or older, whose divorce rates have doubled since 1990, divorce may be even harder on their health. “What I see among older patients is that divorce can have myriad psychological and physical consequences, especially for those with already existing medical problems,” says Dr. Andreea Seritan, a geriatric psychiatrist and professor of clinical psychiatry at the University of California–San Francisco.
Divorce rates for people younger than age 50 are higher (about double) than they are for seniors. But younger couples’ divorce rates aren’t seeing dramatic increase. For 40-somethings, divorce rates are only slightly higher than they were in 1990. For people younger than 40, divorce rates have actually fallen.
The sudden jump in older age divorce rates is a phenomenon commonly called gray divorce. It was uncovered by Bowling Green State University researchers Susan Brown and I-Fen Lin in a landmark 2012 study. Brown says the data were the same as recently as 2016. “Older adults are at the forefront of family change,” explains Brown, a distinguished professor and chair of the sociology department. “Most divorces among older adults are happening in the 50- to 64-year-old age range.”
Brown points to a number of potential factors for gray divorce (even among people in their 70s):
— Financial autonomy for women who work and are no longer dependent on their husbands for money
— Remarriage (Brown and Lin found that gray divorce is 2.5 times higher among people who’ve married a second or third time.)
Brown also speculates that changing expectations of marriage are playing a role in gray divorce. “We speak about marriage now in terms of how it’s contributing to our own personal happiness,” Brown says. “So the bar for a good marriage has risen.” Brown notes that previously, the goals for women in marriage focused on being a good wife and mother. For men, it was about being a good economic provider.
Some of Brown’s ongoing research suggests that gray divorce is associated with elevated depressive symptoms.
Seritan isn’t surprised. She frequently sees newly divorced seniors who’ve developed depression, chronic stress or anxiety. She says gray divorcees may also experience post-traumatic stress symptoms such as nightmares and flashbacks of unhappy events (especially for people who’ve been in abusive relationships).
Psychological conditions on their own are linked to physical problems. Depression is associated with heart disease, Parkinson’s disease and Type 2 diabetes. Untreated chronic stress increases the risk for developing high blood pressure, insomnia, heart disease, obesity and a weakened immune system. And it can worsen symptoms of existing health problems.
Seritan says even the symptoms of psychological distress — fatigue, lack of focus, poor memory, muscle aches, hopelessness, mood swings, changes in appetite and sleep or a loss of interest in activities that once brought pleasure — are enough to hurt health, especially when a combination of symptoms is at play. For example:
— Changes in activity. “People who are depressed may become more sedentary and stop exercising. If they have high blood pressure or diabetes, that can get out of control without exercise and cause more complications,” Seritan says.
— Risky behaviors. “Stress can be associated with overeating, overspending, impulsive behaviors, promiscuity, substance abuse and generally putting yourself in unsafe situations,” Seritan says.
One of the biggest health concerns of gray divorce is isolation. It may develop if an older person is depressed and doesn’t feel like socializing or getting out of the house.
Or isolation may result from a change in relationships. “Men are the ones who usually face a social ‘gray divorce penalty,'” says Jocelyn Crowley, author of “Gray Divorce: What We Lose and Gain from Mid-Life Splits” and professor of public policy at Rutgers University. She interviewed 40 men and 40 women, all unrelated, to find out about their gray divorce experiences. “Men were more likely to be alienated from their children after a gray divorce because they weren’t as involved in raising them. And men no longer had the benefit of their wives’ social planning. The wife was the one who usually got families together for holidays and maintained relationships with other couples.”
Whatever the reason for isolation, it’s a serious health hazard. Many studies have linked isolation to a greater risk for mental health decline, chronic disease and even early death.
Divorce may also affect older adults when it comes to caregiving and finances.
Divorcing may mean a senior loses his or her closest caregiver. “The spouse is the one who knows the health issues best and makes sure someone takes medications or has groceries or a ride to a doctor’s appointment,” Seritan points out.
Economic changes can hurt health if a senior can’t afford medication, food, transportation or medical care. Crowley found that women were typically the divorce losers when it came to finances. “Women experienced an economic ‘gray divorce penalty.’ They made less than men and they took time out from working to raise children. These gaps in earnings sometimes meant they saved less for retirement and had lower Social Security benefits,” Crowley says.
Seritan recommends that older adults who are divorcing use strategies to thwart potential problems such as:
— Avoid isolation. Even if it’s difficult, make an effort to get out of the house every day.
There are silver linings for some gray divorcees. “Some people seem happier. They waited for their kids to become independent, divorced after long marriages and are still good friends,” Seritan says. “They may find new energy, a new interest or a new relationship and feel loved and valued.”
Crowley agrees: “You may feel optimistic and look forward to freedom and making new decisions in your life.”
That doesn’t mean happy people won’t face health risks. Going through divorce is still stressful, and living alone still increases the risk for isolation and other health problems. “But if at the end of day you consider the potential consequences and you feel being separated from a toxic relationship is better for you over the long run,” says Crowley, “my research does support that you can potentially start over and be happier after a gray divorce.”