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Divorce Increases Women's Heart Attack Risk

April 22, 2015

Divorce is bad for your heart -- especially if you’re a woman. According to new Duke research, women who have been divorced at least once are more likely to experience a heart attack than married women, and that risk jumps even higher when women are divorced two or three times. While men are generally at higher risk for heart attack, divorce doesn’t appear to increase their risk. Men’s heart attack risk only rises after two or more divorces, when compared to married men. And their risk decreases once they remarry.

Divorce Has a Lasting Effect on Heart Health

“The negative consequences of divorce have been known for some time,” said lead author Matthew Dupre, PhD, an associate professor of medicine at Duke. Previous studies have suggested a link between divorce, widowhood and heart disease, and people’s access to health care and their own lifestyle habits.

However, the Duke study, published in the journal Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes, reports that women’s increased risk of heart attack after divorce remains high even after taking into account the presence of known heart disease risk factors. These include behavioral and social factors, such as smoking and economic stress, and physical factors including obesity, high blood pressure and diabetes.

“This is one of the first studies to look at the cumulative effect of divorce over a long period,” he explained. “We found it can have a lasting imprint on people’s health.”

Repeated Exposure to Divorce Increases Heart Attack Risk

Dupre’s study looked at lifetime exposure to current marital status, as well as how many times someone has gone through divorce. “We found that repeated exposure put men and women at higher risk of having a heart attack, but women were at higher risk than men, when compared to people who remain married.”

The study tracked more than 15,000 people for 18 years who had been married at least once. When the study began, 14% of men and 19% of women were divorced. By the end of the study, more than one third of people had been divorced at least once.

During that 18-year period, 1,211 people experienced a heart attack. When compared to women who remained married, women who had been divorced once were 24% more likely to have a heart attack. Women divorced at least twice were 77% more likely to have a heart attack. Remarried women were 35% more likely to have a heart attack when compared to women who had never divorced.

In contrast, men only experienced increased heart attack risk if they had divorced two or more times. They were 30% more likely to have a heart attack than married men.

Talk to Your Doctor About Major Life Events

While major life stressors – such as divorce and its potential financial, emotional and social impact – can have a major effect on one’s overall health, the bottom-line message is to recognize and understand those risks, and talk to your doctor.

“Now that we know that divorce may be a life event that can contribute to higher heart attack risk, doctors can monitor patients more closely if they are going through a divorce,” Dupre said. Studies like this puts everyone on alert to factors, such as divorce, that put women and men at higher risk for heart attack.

Divorce and Heart Attack Risk -- In the News

Learn more about Duke's research into the relationship between divorce and increased heart attack risk:

Time magazine: What Divorce Does to Women's Heart Health

New York Times: Divorce May Be Bad for the Heart, Especially for Women

Reuters: Divorce Tied to Increased Heart Attack Risk

Duke press release: Heart Attack Risk High in Divorced Women, Even After Remarrying