Divorce could be the death of you, according to a new study warning of the health risks associated with separation.
The research comes as lawyers brace themselves for a surge in inquiries from married couples planning to split up after the Christmas break.
The number of people wanting to start divorce proceedings is said to peak on the first working Monday after New Year –dubbed “Divorce Day” – which falls on 5 January this year.
A growing body of research links divorce to serious negative health effects and even early death, yet few studies have asked why that connection may exist.
Divorce-related sleep troubles may be partly to blame, suggest the authors of a study published in the journal Health Psychology.
Co-author Dr David Sbarra, associate professor of psychology at the University of Arizona in the United States, said: “In the initial few months after a separation, sleep problems are probably pretty normal, and this is an adjustment process that people can typically cope with well. But sleep problems that persist for an extended period may mean something different.
“It may mean that people are potentially becoming depressed, that they’re struggling with getting their life going again, and it is these people that are particularly susceptible to health problems.”
The research looked at 138 people who had physically separated from or divorced their partner about 16 weeks before the start of the study.
Participants were asked to report on their quality of sleep during three lab visits over a seven-and-a-half-month period.
Their blood pressure was also measured on each visit.
Researchers saw a delayed effect, with people showing increased systolic and diastolic blood pressure in later visits to the lab as a function of earlier sleep problems.
Dr Sbarra said: “We saw changes in resting blood pressure were associated with sleep problems three months earlier.
“Earlier sleep problems predicted increases in resting blood pressure over time.”
The researchers also found that the longer sleep problems persisted after their separation, the more likely those problems were to have an adverse effect on blood pressure.
Dr Sbarra said: “What we found was, if you’re having sleep problems up to about ten weeks after your separation, they don’t appear to be associated with your future increase in blood pressure. However, after ten or so weeks – after some sustained period of time – there seems to be a cumulative bad effect.”
He said for people who have high blood pressure to begin with, the increase is not to be taken lightly, adding: “Each standard deviation increase in sleep complaints corresponded to a roughly six-unit increase in subsequent systolic blood pressure.
“If you’re starting at the high average or low hypertensive range, this is a non-trivial bump.”
Systolic is the top blood pressure number, measuring the pressure in the arteries when the heart beats; diastolic is the bottom number, measuring the pressure in the arteries between heartbeats. Normal blood pressure is around 120/80.
One in five people is considering separating from their partner after agreeing to stay together over the festive period, according to a poll of more than 2,000 married parents.
Lawyers Irwin Mitchell, which commissioned the research, also revealed divorce instructions rose by 27 per cent across January last year compared to an average month, while the number of instructions was also up by 25 per cent in January 2013.