It's no surprise that going through a divorce is up there when it comes to stressful life hurdles. One only need look at Demi Moore to see a very public example of how the dissolution of a marriage can throw a substantial spanner in the works; not two months after announcing her divorce from Ashton Kutcher did she check into rehab for purported "eating disorder and addiction issues" following a nitrous oxide-fuelled seizure.
Coming an astounding second on the Social Readjustment Rating Scale – which measures how the resultant stress of traumatic events impact negatively on an individual's mental and physical health – divorce ranks higher than the loss of a close friend or significant personal injury and is preceded only by the death of a spouse when it comes to heightened risk of illness.
But what you may not know is that, when it comes to divorce, the younger you are the more likely that you'll suffer negative health consequences.
A recent Michigan State University study found that those who got divorced between the ages of 35 and 41 self-reported a higher incident of illness than those who divorced between 44 and 50; with both groups noting more health problems than their still-married counterparts.
"Generally, the divorced rated worse health than the married and the gap is bigger among the younger groups than the older groups," said study author Hui Liu, assistant professor in sociology at Michigan State University. "I think the stress affects physical health through psychological and physiological responses."
Analysing data collected from 1282 participants over a 15-year period, Liu's report backs-up a 2009 study that suggests divorcees are 20 per cent more likely to suffer chronic health problems such as heart disease, diabetes and cancer. Though it wasn't until now that social scientists made the link to an increased risk for younger women.
"Younger women are more likely to have young children to help through the split, which can cause enormous stress," hypothesised Jo Lamble, a Sydney-based clinical psychologist specialising in relationship, family and parenting issues. "If they have not had children, then the added stress-related health problems could be due to the pressure to find another partner with whom to have children."
Admitting that she was surprised by the results, Liu initially imagined that the prevalence of divorce among the younger peer group and increased possibility of finding a new partner would equate to an easier adjustment period. Instead, in addition to the factor of small children, she chalks the findings up to the fact that the older demographic have more experience coping with stressful situations and societal pressure among that generation to stay married means many feel a sense of relief when they finally divorce.
"Older divorcees have more life experience and coping resources to handle stress and they may know better how to cope with the stress from divorce," she added. "Younger divorcees are relatively less mature and may not be good at handling the stress."
But why do married couples seem to enjoy better health overall? Rather than surviving on love alone, Liu says the reality is far more pragmatic and to do with financial stability and access to adequate healthcare resources. A study by the University of Michigan has found that women are more likely than men to lose their health insurance following a divorce. Though the research was conducted in the US where lack of public healthcare makes things substantially direr, Liu says the findings can be extrapolated to include all recent divorcees.
"Marriage has long been argued to promote health by providing protective resource to health," she said. "For example, married people usually pool income which increases the available economic resources. Married couples also often provide emotional support to each other and regulate each other's health behaviours. All of these factors may explain why married people are healthier."
Liu emphasises that the research should not be used as an argument to dissuade women from escaping untenable or unfulfilling relationships. Though it's true that many individuals experience high levels of stress and subsequent illness, the findings also state that those who report a decline in health in the aftermath of a divorce eventually return to the same level as their married counterparts. This shows that it's the process of a divorce itself that causes the stress, not the simple fact of being single. Once the initial period has passed and the individual has adjusted to any financial disparity there is no discernable difference between the groups.
"It is not the status of being married or divorced, per se, that affects health, but instead is the process of transitioning from marriage to divorce that is stressful and hurts health," said Liu.
There are also ways for those currently undergoing or considering a divorce to minimise the impact on their health in the short-to-medium term. Lamble suggests surrounding yourself with a supportive network of family and friends, forming healthy eating and exercise habits and seeking individual counselling if you feel you're not able to cope at home or in the workplace.
"Being as physically healthy as you can will minimise the impact," said Lamble. "Focusing on the here and now – otherwise known as mindfulness – instead of the past can greatly reduce stress, and focussing on the well-being of the children helps everyone."