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How Divorce Can Hurt Kids—Later

Silhouette of family
Photograph by ThinkStock

That’s just swell. Along with all the other hardships divorce brings, people whose folks split during their childhood are more likely to have raised levels of a worrisome inflammatory marker in their blood.

The discovery comes from researchers at University College London, England, who analyzed data from nearly 7,500 people. (These subjects are all participants in England’s National Child Development study, an ongoing project that’s been tracking a large group since their birth in 1958.)

The findings, published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology: Kids who endured the divorce of their parents before age 16 had 16 percent higher levels of something called C-reactive protein in their blood at age 44. The protein is a marker of inflammation; long-term raised levels of it are a risk factor for coronary heart disease, type 2 diabetes and other nasties.

The protein level problem/parental split link held true even if a subject's parents had not been legally wed prior to their breakup.

So what’s the reason for this phenomenon? The authors tried to get to the bottom of it. Mainly, they say, children whose folks break up before they’re 16 have material disadvantages in adolescence and lower educational achievements by adulthood. It’s their diminished circumstances that seem to be to blame, though the specific mechanisms aren’t fully understood.

"Our study suggests that it is not parental divorce or separation, per se, which increases the risk of later inflammation but that it is other social disadvantages, such as how well the child does in education, which are triggered by having experienced parental divorce,” says Dr. Rebecca Lacey, Research Associate in the UCL Department of Epidemiology and Public Health and lead author of the study.

Does that mean unhappy couples should stay together for the sake of the children? No one’s saying that—but the study does suggest how important it is to give extra support to families going through separation and divorce.

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