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Divorce may affect health, study says
When my creaky joints ache in the morning, I blame a lot of things -- too hard a workout at the gym, drizzly weather, advancing age.

It never occurred to me to blame my divorce -- until now.

The breakup of my marriage five years ago could actually be fueling my persistent aches, new research suggests. A study to be released next week at a national marriage conference shows that being divorced for long periods is linked to higher rates of chronic illness and loss of mobility later in life.

Coining a new term, "marital biography," to denote your entire lifelong experience with marriage, divorce and remarriage, the study's co-authors, University of Chicago's Linda Waite and Duke University's Mary Elizabeth Hughes, will show how that history has a cumulative effect on health. Indeed, your marital biography has an even bigger impact on long-term health than whether you are married or divorced at any particular time.

The longer you spend in a divorced or widowed state, the higher the likelihood of heart or lung disease, cancer, high blood pressure, diabetes, stroke and difficulties with mobility, such as walking or climbing stairs, according to the 2005 study of 8,652 people age 51 to 61. The research, funded by the National Institute on Aging, will be presented a week from Thursday at a Dallas conference of the Coalition for Marriage, Family and Couples Education, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit organization.

People who were married at the time of the study and had never been divorced or widowed had 20 percent fewer chronic conditions, based on participants' reports of doctors' diagnoses, than individuals who had been divorced, after controlling for age, gender and race. That suggests the stresses of divorce and its aftermath have health effects that may not show up in a person until years later.

"Our marital biography writes on us and scars us," Diane Sollee, coalition director and founder of SmartMarriages.com, a marriage-education Web site, says of the study results. "It's a slow burn."

The researchers measured marital disruptions by calculating the percentage of the years since first marriage that were spent in a divorced or widowed state. In my case, I married once, in 1979, and divorced in 2000. Thus I've spent 20 percent of the time since I was first married in a state of marital disruption. That increases by 6 percent the number of chronic health problems I might expect to develop, compared with my risk if I'd never divorced.

If you're going to remarry, the study suggests, make sure you get it right. People in low-quality remarriages, as gauged by how much participants say they enjoy time with their spouses, are no better off than people who remain divorced, researchers found. A happy second marriage, however, offers significantly more health protection. If I'd remarried happily within two years of my divorce, my risk of chronic health problems would have risen only 2 percent.

Other studies have found a link between marriage, longevity and self-reported health. But that research has been based mostly on a "snapshot" of subjects' marital state, without a marital history or data about medical diagnoses.

Many studies have found links between long-term stress and a weakening of the immune system. Also, the stresses of divorce tend to trigger the kinds of behavior and conditions associated with chronic disease. A study of 127,545 adults last year by the National Center for Health Statistics showed divorced people reported more smoking, physical inactivity and heavy drinking than married individuals.

Obesity was the only exception, appearing more often in marrieds than singles. (Married guys in particular tend to be overweight.) Married adults also were less likely than widowed or divorced people to report they were in fair or poor health.

Parenting post-divorce poses unique strain. John Ramirez of Oxnard, Calif., formerly a city code-enforcement officer, worked six to seven days a week after his divorce so he could avoid being on call during the alternate weekends he cared for his then-school-age daughter.

Mr. Ramirez felt "keyed up," he says, and went to his doctor for help coping. "My immune system was being pummeled by the worry and lack of sleep."

The daunting workload shouldered by single heads-of-household may also play a role. In addition to working and caring for her children, 12 and 16, after a divorce, Debra Markowitz had to learn how to run the lawnmower, de-bug home computers and chop firewood.

"Everything was up to me," says the director of a New York nonprofit organization. Too stressed to sleep, "I walked around with my heart palpitating," a worsening symptom of a heart-valve problem diagnosed before her divorce. Although she almost never gets colds, she had two bad ones after her marital breakup.

A Somis, Calif., pilot developed gastritis during a divorce that left him "crushed and reeling for years," he says. He sought help from his doctor and takes medication to prevent a recurrence. The stress of divorce, he believes, reduced his immunity.

Researchers haven't been able to control the study results completely for the impact of marital selection -- that is, the likelihood that people who are healthier and more robust in the first place will be more likely to form lasting, happy marriages. Researchers explored effects of marital selection and found mixed results, says Dr. Waite.

While more research is needed, she says, it seems clear that married people's healthier state springs from both -- not only selection, but from the protective, stabilizing effect of marriage.

The Marriage Benefit

A number of studies have found that, compared with divorced people, happily married people tend to:

Have fewer chronic health problems

Report fewer symptoms of depression

Smoke and drink less

Say they are in better health

Retain greater mobility in middle age

By Sue Shellenbarger, The Wall Street Journal