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For better or worse, relationships have enormous effects on health | Gustafson
Loving relationships can produce countless benefits in terms of both mental and physical well-being.
Unfortunately, a successful marriage or partnership is not easy to come by – and when it happens, there is no guarantee it will last.
Nearly half of all marriages in America end in divorce, often with devastating consequences for everyone involved. The ramifications are not easily measured and often manifest themselves long afterwards. Even people who seem able to recover can suffer long-term damages, including to their physical health.
Losing a partner through divorce or death is one of the most extreme forms of stress anyone can go through, according to Dr. Linda Waite, a professor of sociology at the University of Chicago who has conducted several studies on health issues in connection with marriage and divorce.
"People who lose a marriage take such damage to their health," she said in an interview on the subject with CNN. "It's financially, sometimes, ruinous. It's socially extremely difficult. What's interesting is if people have done this and remarried, we still see, in their health, the scars or marks, the damage that was done by this event."
Depression is a common response to the loss of a spouse or partner. So is sleeplessness. Dr. Waite also found that divorced and widowed people tend to suffer in greater numbers from chronic diseases and are overall of poorer health compared to others who have not had the experience, regardless of other factors like age, race, gender, and education.
Even people who haven't ended a relationship but feel ambivalent about their partner seem to have their health affected. A recently published study conducted at the University of Utah found that couples who were unsure about their marriage had on average a higher risk of developing heart disease than their happily married counterparts.
Widowhood, especially at an advanced age, can have even greater implication. According to a study from England, the risk of a heart attack is the highest in the first month after bereavement. The high level of stress caused by the loss of a loved one can result in a depressed immune system, which may add to or aggravate existing health conditions.
The fact is that losing someone who was close to you, whom you shared your life with, and who is now gone is an ongoing stress event. It never really goes away because it is, or at least once was, part of a person's identity. There is a deep void to be filled, and that effort takes time and may never be completed. It can lead to chronic stress with multiple negative side effects, some of which may not easily be identified.
As at all times of heightened stress, it is particularly important in these situations to pay attention to one's health needs and be proactive by taking some extra health-promoting measures. Eating nutritious food is one of those and so is daily exercise. Divorce or bereavement counseling is highly recommended.
Especially when people are at their most vulnerable, they can find it hard to reach out to others and ask for support. Offering a helping hand or just being present in a loving, nonintrusive way can prevent a grieving person from falling into isolation, which is the worst that can happen. Recovery from great loss depends not only on what's happening on the inside but also on someone's chances to rejoin the world of the living.
Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book "The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun"®, which is available on her blog and at amazon.com. For more articles on nutrition, health and lifestyle, visit her blog, "Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D." (www.timigustafson.com). You can follow Timi on Twitter, on Facebook, Google+ and on Pinterest.