MONDAY, Nov. 22, 2010 (HealthDay News) -- Children of divorce appear to have more than double the lifetime risk for experiencing a stroke compared with those whose parents' marriage stays intact during their childhood, new research suggests.
The finding stems from a survey of more than 13,000 Canadians, about 10 percent of whom had experienced parental divorce when they were young children or adolescents.
"I certainly don't want this to be taken to mean that children from divorced households are condemned to have strokes," said study author Dr. Esme Fuller-Thomson, a professor and Sandra Rotman Chair in the faculties of social work, medicine and nursing at the University of Toronto.
"This is just one factor among many that may increase stroke risk," she noted. "And we don't know that it's causal, in the sense that divorce leads to a stroke. It could be that many other things are at work here that are related to divorce, but are not divorce itself. We just don't know yet."
Fuller-Thomson is slated to present her team's findings Monday at the Gerontological Society of America's annual meeting in New Orleans.
To explore the question, the authors sifted through data that had initially been collected in 2005 by Statistics Canada, the Canadian equivalent of the U.S. Census Bureau.
The current study focused on survey participants from two Canadian provinces, Manitoba and Saskatchewan.
Nearly 1,400 of the 13,000 respondents had experienced parental divorce, and just fewer than 2 percent (248) said they had experienced a stroke at some point.
The research team looked into a wide range of potentially influential factors, including age, race, gender, socioeconomic background, educational background, adult mental health history, childhood physical abuse history, long-term parental unemployment, lifestyle issues (such as obesity, and smoking and drinking behaviors), and diabetes history.
Ultimately, the researchers determined none of these variables explained the bottom-line finding: that children of divorce seem to bear an approximately 2.2 times higher risk for lifetime stroke.
"This needs to be replicated several times to make sure there really is this relationship," cautioned Fuller-Thomson. "But if this holds up, one possible explanation is that adverse child experiences may become physically embedded in the way you react to stresses later on in life, particularly in terms of dysfunctions in cortisol levels, which is what's involved in the fight-or-flight mechanism. It's possible. But that's just a hypothesis at this point," she added.
"But the other important thing to note is that even if divorce is proved to cause stroke, many of these people who we looked at who are having stroke are now in their 60s, 70s and 80s," she noted. "That means they experienced divorce in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, when the consequences and context for divorce were quite different. So we can't take their experience and project into the future, since it's very different to be a child of divorce today. So this is novel and interesting, but people really should not go into panic mode over it."
Meanwhile, Dr. Kirk Garratt, clinical director of interventional cardiovascular research at Lenox Hill Hospital within the North Shore-Long Island Jewish Systems in New York City, agreed that it is premature to draw any conclusions based on the finding.
"But it certainly stimulates a discussion, because we would want to understand what actual mechanisms underpin this, particularly since divorce itself is probably not a modifiable risk factor. Meaning, you're not going to tell people they can't divorce because they're going to give their child a stroke," he explained.
"So what's worth looking at is not the socially charged issue of divorce itself," Garratt said, "but rather what is the unique social trauma that might come along with divorce that perhaps alters something physiologically in children of divorce. And that could prove to give some direction to studies of stress, and how stress can cause real physical harm."
For more on divorce, children and stress, visit the Nemours Foundation.