Divorce and Death: A Meta-Analysis and Research Agenda for Clinical, Social, and Health Psychology

Perspect Psychol Sci. 2011 Sep;6(5):454-74. doi: 10.1177/1745691611414724.


Divorce is a relatively common stressful life event that is purported to increase risk for all-cause mortality. One problem in the literature on divorce and health is that it is fragmented and spread across many disciplines; most prospective studies of mortality are based in epidemiology and sociology, whereas most mechanistic studies are based in psychology. This review integrates research on divorce and death via meta-analysis and outlines a research agenda for better understanding the potential mechanisms linking marital dissolution and risk for all-cause mortality. Random effects meta-analysis with a sample of 32 prospective studies (involving more than 6.5 million people, 160,000 deaths, and over 755,000 divorces in 11 different countries) revealed a significant increase in risk for early death among separated/divorced adults in comparison to their married counterparts. Men and younger adults evidenced significantly greater risk for early death following marital separation/divorce than did women and older adults. Quantification of the overall effect size linking marital separation/divorce to risk for early death reveals a number of important research questions, and this article discusses what remains to be learned about four plausible mechanisms of action: social selection, resource disruptions, changes in health behaviors, and chronic psychological distress.

Keywords: death; divorce; epidemiology; marital separation; mechanisms; meta-analysis; mortality; public health; risk.