Approximately four-in-ten first marriages result in a divorce. A divorce is a stressful process for just about anyone, but when you add children into the mix, it intensifies that stress exponentially. When parents divorce, it can weaken the child’s sense of security and lead to distrust and emotional instability. To add insult to injury, a study conducted at University College London (UCL) found that experiencing a parental separation or divorce can also increase the risk for future health complications in children.
Researchers at UCL examined data from a study that followed 7,462 participants since their birth in 1958. The National Child Development Study found that adults who experienced the breakdown of their parents relationship before the age of 16 had C-reactive protein levels that were 16 percent higher at the age of 44. This is problematic since C-reactive protein (or CRP) is an indicator of inflammation and long-term high inflammation levels are associated with an increased risk for diseases such as type-2 diabetes, heart disease, and even cancer.
The reason why experiencing parental divorce in childhood results in elevated inflammation levels is likely multifaceted, and the researchers believe the material disadvantage that divorce creates for many children is a big contributing factor. The participants in the study who experienced parental separation as children were more likely to be materially disadvantaged in adolescence and their parents tended to be in a lower social class. These children also had generally lower educational qualifications in adulthood than the participants who grew up with both parents. According to Dr. Rebecca Lacey, Research Associate in the UCL Department of Epidemiology and Public Health and lead author of the study, “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 which are important.”
In addition to the above contributing factors, the research revealed two further explanations for why the participants who experienced a parental separation as children had higher inflammation levels. Firstly, these participants tended to have a slightly higher body mass index (BMI), and secondly, a higher percentage of these participants were smokers. Both excess body weight and habitual smoking are directly linked to elevated inflammation and CRP levels. The good news here is that if you are separated and have children, you can help to control their future health risk by leading by example. Discourage smoking (and if you are a smoker make it a priority to quit) and stock your cupboards with healthy food. The eating habits that your children establish now will likely stay with them throughout their adult lives. Fostering a taste for healthy food in childhood will reduce their risk for future obesity and help to keep their CRP levels down.
Of all the explanations, the study author believes that education is likely the most important. This is also great news, because as a parent you have control over your children’s educational path. Play an active role in their schooling, attend all parent-teacher conferences, make sure your children finish all of their homework, and reward your children for good grades. Emphasize the importance of a good education and make yourself available to tutor your children, if needed. These steps will help ensure educational success and in so doing, secure future career success. Most important of all, they may help to reduce your child’s future risk for serious health disorders, such as heart disease and diabetes.