TUESDAY, Dec. 28, 2004 (HealthDayNews) -- Men who remarry after a divorce or death of a spouse start packing on the pounds and cutting back on exercise, essentially letting themselves go, a new study finds.
These men experience an increase in body mass index (BMI), coupled with a decreased level of physical activity, compared with men who remained unmarried.
Nevertheless, getting hitched again proved healthful in at least one way: they ate more vegetables. Formerly widowed men boosted their veggie intake by more than four servings per week, while former divorcees added 1.28 more servings to their diet each week.
"Actually, the changes associated with diet were probably the most striking," said study author Patricia Mona Eng, an epidemiologist with i3 Magnifi, a unit of the health information company Ingenix.
Wives typically take charge of the shopping and cooking, "so when these men lost their spouses, they basically lost access to a better diet," she reasoned.
The study appears in the January 2005 issue of the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health. Eng believes it is the first major effort to correlate changes in diet and other health behaviors with changes in marital status.
The study, conducted while Eng was with the Harvard School of Public Health, examined data on the marital status and health habits of almost 40,000 male health professionals between the ages of 40 and 75. The data were collected at four-year intervals, enabling comparisons of the health habits of men who experienced a marital transition.
Dr. Jean Bonhomme, a spokesman for the Men's Health Network, wondered whether the findings apply to a more general population. Health professionals, for one, tend to be more educated, he said, adding that because they are employed, the study would inherently under-represent disabled individuals.
The study population, with a median age of 55, also represents older men who tend to have more traditional beliefs about who does the cooking, Bonhomme noted. Whether the findings would hold true among younger men is unclear.
Overall, a marriage ended by death or divorce was linked to adverse changes in men's health behaviors. Alcohol consumption increased among men whose wives died -- up 0.51 servings a week compared with men who stayed married.
Men and women may express depression differently, Bonhomme suggested. "A guy may go to a bar and rack up a lot of drinks," he said.
Widowed men also ate fried foods away from home more frequently. And men who became widowed or divorced ate 2.91 and 2.05 fewer servings of vegetables a week, respectively, compared with married men.
Divorced and widowed men had decreases in BMI relative to changes in men who stayed married. Psychological factors, such as depression, may explain the drop in body mass, Eng said. It also may be that divorced men are more interested in their physical appearance because they are back on the marriage market, she added.
"The bottom line for this study is that loss of a wife either through divorce or death is detrimental in terms of health behaviors," Eng said.
Remarriage, while not beneficial in terms of body mass or exercise, seemed to have an overall positive effect on diet. Those in the study who remarried increased their consumption of vegetables, chicken and turkey and decreased their intake of high-sugar beverages, compared to the men who stayed widowed or divorced.
Many people experience divorce or death of a spouse at some point in their lifetime, and it needn't be a health hazard, Eng said.
Health habits are modifiable; you can get help from family, friends, a physician, or a support group for individuals undergoing these sorts of marital transitions.
"Take care of your health in terms of your behaviors when you're undergoing these stressful life changes," she said. "Don't let yourself completely go."
Your BMI can be calculated by dividing your weight by your height squared. (in inches) and multiplying by 703. Anyone with a BMI of more than 25 is considered overweight. Any BMI above 30 is considered obese, the U.S. government says. For tips on how men can live a healthy life, visit the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.