Breakups and loneliness could put men at risk of disease in one specific way
The zeitgeist demands we view romantic love as either the pinnacle of adult success or a nice idea sold to suckers. The single life, one side says, is true freedom. “Happy wife, happy life,” the other reminds anxious heterosexuals.
This article will not settle the dispute, but the dispute itself — and its influence on attitudes and subsequent decisions — is compelling. How you view being alone and the role of self-care has a profound influence on your life. According to one new study, it may tilt the scales toward whether your life is defined by good health or not.
In the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health researchers report how the combination of several breakups and living alone for many years is associated with heightened levels of persistent low-grade inflammation. Persistent inflammation is a risk factor that increases the chance of disease and death.
But in this study of 4,835 Danish people between the ages of 48 and 62, this result was only observed among men.
Specifically, experiencing two or more breakups, as well as living alone for 7 or more years across 26 years of adult life were connected to increased levels of the inflammatory markers C-reactive protein (CRP) and interleukin 6 (IL-6). Men who went through the most breakups had 17 percent higher levels of inflammatory markers and men who spent the most years living alone had 12 percent higher levels of inflammatory markers than the reference group.
“It is not well understood why men experience this differently than women.”
Other research also suggests divorce and years spent alone can be harmful to health, explains co-author author Karolina K. Davidsen, a research associate at the University of Copenhagen. “This is especially clear for men,” she tells me.
“It is not well understood why men experience this differently than women,” Davidsen says. “But it has previously been theorized, by others, that the difference may stem from men experiencing greater health gains from marriage than women — which means that a divorce will put them at higher risk of health declines.”
Men have also been “found to display more externalizing behavior following a partnership breakdown,” Davidsen explains; this can manifest as drinking more alcohol and eating poorly. There’s also a protective, emotional shield associated with marriage: One study suggests 66 percent of men rely on their wives as their primary social support.
An increasingly large body of research shows there’s a strong connection between emotions and inflammation. For example, avoidance-oriented negative emotions, like fear and shame, are linked to greater inflammatory activity. Sadness and anger are also associated with higher levels of inflammatory biomarkers. Chronic inflammation, in turn, is bad for the heart and can contribute to diseases like diabetes and cancer.
Davidsen and her colleagues can’t yet say why this trend exists. The study was observational and limited by having fewer female participants. Another limitation, Davidsen explains, is the inherent relationship between inflammatory markers and age. Because the participants were a mean age of 54.5 years, “it is possible that the full consequences of the exposures have not yet reached the peak, which may occur at an older age for women,” she explains.
Beyond the initial findings, the team also observed that the men with the most years of formal education who lived alone also had the highest levels of both inflammatory markers. The same association was not found in women.
The inflammatory markers were measured in blood samples, and the study participants submitted information about their breakups and years lived alone. This study is unique in that it doesn’t merely concern marital breakups — a shortcoming in other research that this team suggests is an outdated measure of romantic life.
“These habits may affect their health, and eventually the risk profiles of many common diseases.”
Critically, a few breakups or living alone aren’t themselves poor health risks, the study team says. It’s the combination of many years lived alone and break-ups and being a middle-aged man that seems to matter.
Davidsen is hesitant to provide advice based on her findings, but she does say this: Perhaps unmarried men living alone should try to “be aware of the habits they may have after experiencing a break-up.”
“These habits may affect their health, and eventually the risk profiles of many common diseases,” she says.
The science shows an association, but we’re missing some key information: We don’t know the type of relationships these study participants had — we can’t answer whether or not both partners felt equally supported, equally cared for, for example. And it remains to be seen why the same effect is not seen in women.
Does what you expect from a partnership influence what you put out in the world — how you take care of yourself, how you live? You probably have an opinion on that. Regardless, there is a link between being male, alone, and edging toward being unhealthy. That should be enough to stop and think, regardless of your opinion on love.