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Breakdown of relationships increases inflammation, but only in men

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A recent study looked at the links between relationship breakdown and inflammation. Klaus Vedfelt / Getty Images
  • Divorce or divorce is associated with poorer health in men.
  • A new study that looked at middle-aged adults in Denmark showed that living alone and experiencing multiple relationship breakdowns is associated with higher levels of inflammation in men.
  • The study found no such connection in women.

Researchers have already shown that for men, divorce or breakup of a relationship often leads to a decline in health and is associated with increased mortality.

A breakup often leads to living alone, which is also associated with health problems.

Previous studies have found an association between social isolation and higher levels of inflammation, suggesting a potential physiological pathway. However, there is little previous research that looks at how this association can function over time.

As the number of people living alone rising in western populations, scientists are eager to understand the links between personal relationships and disease states.

A recent, large study in Denmark contributes to our growing understanding. The authors identified a significant association between partnership breakup or life years alone and increased levels of inflammation in men. The study appears from Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health.

Prof. Rikke Lund from the University of Copenhagen in Denmark, one of the study's lead authors, explained Medical news today:

“[S]As elevated inflammatory levels are associated with increased mortality and morbidity from a number of chronic diseases, our study contributes […] a potential connection mechanism. "

The study used data from middle-aged people covering 26 years of adulthood. It is the first study examining the effects of living alone for a shorter or longer period of time and experiencing zero, one or more divorces or breakups from cohabitation relationships.

Inflammation is the body's way of defending itself against toxins, injuries and infections. Acute inflammation lasts a few hours or days, for example after an incision in a knee.

Chronic inflammation is a persistent inflammatory reaction. White blood cells can flood the system and attack healthy tissue.

Interleukin 6 (IL-6) and C-reactive protein (CRP) are two molecules involved in the inflammatory response. Elevated IL-6 and CRP are associated with many adverse health outcomes, such as increased risk of cardiovascular events, decreased physical and cognitive performance, and a higher risk of death.

The research team, based on the University of Copenhagen, analyzed data from Copenhagen Aging and Midlife Biobank.

In total, they used data from 4,835 participants, all aged 48-62 years. The data spanned 26 years, from 1986 to 2011.

For 4,612 persons (3,170 men and 1,442 women), the data included information on the number of fractures. For 4,835 persons (3,336 men and 1,499 women), records contained information on the number of years lived alone.

The researchers also collected information on factors that could influence the results of the study. These included education level, weight, medical conditions, early major life events, medications that could affect inflammation, personality traits, and any recent inflammatory episodes.

Participants provided blood tests to assess levels of IL-6 and CRP as an indication of inflammation levels.

After adjusting for a number of potentially confusing variables, the researchers found that more relationship breaks or years lived alone in men were associated with increased inflammatory markers compared to a reference group of men who had not experienced a relationship break or had lived alone in 0 - 1 year.

The most profound increase in levels of inflammation occurred in the group of men who had experienced the most fractures - two or more. Compared to the reference group, they had 17% higher levels of inflammatory markers.

Similarly, men who had lived alone for the longest time - 7 years or more - had 12% higher levels of inflammation than the reference group.

The study found no such effect in women.

These results suggest that men and not women are significantly disadvantaged by breaking up relationships or living alone.

A few years alone or a few fractures are not health risk factors in themselves, but a combination of many years alone and multiple fractures creates an increased risk of elevated inflammatory markers in men.

Our study has identified middle-aged men who have lived alone for many years or who have experienced several partnership breaches as a vulnerable group - social policy development, but also health professionals should take this into account when new initiatives are planned or when they come into contact . with the health system. "

- Prof. Grove

The authors suggest a number of possible explanations for why women were not affected in the same way as men.

First, it may be that women have fewer health benefits from being in a marriage. If so, a fracture will carry less risk of declining health. Secondly, there is proof that young men have a greater inflammatory response than women, which can persist into life later.

They also note that there was a relatively small group of female participants in the study, which may mean that it lacked a real connection.

The main strength of this study is the large sample size with data across 26 years.

One limitation, the authors noted, is the possible selection bias due to dropout of participants. The people who did not fill out all the questionnaires and blood tests may represent people with less stable lives - those with more frequent stories of divorce or breakup.

Another limitation may be that the full consequences of the events that the researchers studied may not have reached the peak, as the average age of the participants was only 54.5 years.

In addition, the men in the study had a higher body mass index (BMI) than the women. People with a higher BMI can experience increased systemic inflammation.

Prof. Lund told MNT that she would like to investigate how having children affects the associations.

“There is a potential that having children can be protective of living alone for many years, but it is probably a given that there is a meaningful and positive contact between the child and the single parent. There is also a potential for having children to further exacerbate the negative effects of partnership dissolution, as they often tend to become [part of] the conflict. "

"Furthermore," she continued, "studies involving a larger group of women may shed light on whether subgroups of women are also at risk for increased inflammatory levels when exposed to."

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