How Break-Ups, Solitude Disproportionately Affect Middle-Aged Men

Break-ups and years of living alone may increase the risk of ill health and death — but apparently only for men, according to a new Danish study.

A few breakups or years lived alone is not in itself a risk of poor health but the combination of long-term solitude and multiple failed relationships is shown to affect levels of two inflammatory markers significantly, the study by researchers at the University of Copenhagen’s department of social medicine showed. The findings were published in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health.

The researchers used data from the Copenhagen Ageing and Midlife Biobank for over 4,800 participants (aged 48 to 62) between 1986 and 2011. The data included information on serial partnership breakups and the number of years lived alone, apart from the participants’ education, long-term health conditions, medicines etc.

Blood samples were taken to measure the inflammatory markers interleukin 6 (IL-6) and C-reactive protein (CRP).

The researchers found that the highest levels of inflammatory markers in men were found in those who had experienced the most partnership breakups. Inflammatory markers were up to 12% higher in the group who had spent seven or more years living alone.

No such associations were found among women, although the study had just 1,499 women. But the authors also suggest that men tend to externalise their behaviour following a partnership breakup, by drinking, for example, whereas women tend to internalise, having depressive symptoms. This may influence inflammatory levels differently.

Partnership breakups and living alone are associated with several adverse health outcomes. The aim of this study, carried out in Denmark, is to investigate whether accumulated numbers of divorces/partnership breakups or years lived alone across 26 years of adult life are associated with levels of inflammation, and if vulnerability with regards to gender or educational level can be identified.

Methods 4835 participants from the Copenhagen Aging and Midlife Biobank (CAMB) aged 48–62 years were included. Data on accumulated numbers of partnership breakups and years living alone were retrieved from a national standardised annual register. Inflammatory markers interleukin 6 (IL-6) and high sensitivity C-reactive protein (hsCRP) were measured in blood samples. Multivariate linear regression analyses were adjusted for age, educational level, early major life events, body mass index, chronic diseases, medicinal intake affecting inflammation, acute inflammation and personality scores.

Results For men, an association was found between an increasing number of partnership breakups or number of years living alone and higher levels of inflammatory markers. No such association was found for women, and no evidence of partnership breakups and educational level having a joint effect was found for either gender.

Conclusion The findings suggest a strong association between years lived alone or accumulated number of partnership breakups and low-grade inflammation for middle-aged men, but not for women. Among those of either sex with a lower level of education, no specific vulnerability to accumulated years lived alone or number of breakups was identified.

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