Middle-aged men are more prone to develop inflammation than their female peers after going through breakups or living alone for extended periods.
Men who live alone with a history of divorce or break-up have been found more prone to develop life-threatening diseases compared to women, who show better perseverance to sail through after facing emotional setbacks.
Danish scientists carried out a study including 4,835 participants from the Copenhagen Aging and Midlife Biobank (CAMB) aged 48–62 years. They were trying to discover whether accumulated numbers of divorces/partnership breakups or isolation are associated with levels of inflammation. They were also trying to determine if vulnerability with regards to gender or educational level can be identified.
Looking at data from men and women across 26 years, Danish scientists found “a strong association between years lived alone or accumulated number of partnership breakups and low-grade inflammation for middle-aged men, but not for women.”
“These life-altering events [partnership breakups or divorces] have been associated with increased risk of many types of adverse health outcomes, including chronic diseases, cardiovascular disease, poor mental health outcomes, maladaptive immunological responses and increased mortality,” the researchers write in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.
The researchers also note that “Among those of either sex with a lower level of education, no specific vulnerability to accumulated years lived alone or number of breakups was identified.”
“Both living alone for more than six years and experiencing two or more breakups increase the risk of high inflammation in men, but not in women. Here inflammation refers to chronic tissue irritation and not conditions caused by virus or bacteria,” explains Professor Rikke Lund from the Department of Public Health, who is the main author of the study. “And here men are especially vulnerable. We need to consider introducing special initiatives targeted at men who suffer breakups or live alone for a period of years.”
The researchers have followed middle-aged Danish men and women through file data, questionnaire data and blood tests for inflammation – inflammatory markers interleukin 6 (IL-6) and high sensitivity C-reactive protein (hsCRP) – over a period of more than 20 years. The participants’ inflammation levels were measured in 2009-2011, when they were between 50 and 60 years-old.
“Chronic tissue irritation in the body is associated with a number of diseases, including arteriosclerosis, dementia and increased mortality. We also know that a minor, but long-term CRP increase is associated with increased risk of cardiovascular disease, and such an increase is also seen in this group of men,” says Rikke Lund.
After taking into consideration a series of factors such as age, level of education, personality, disease, acute inflammation and large negative events during childhood, the scientists still found a connection between living alone or having suffered several breakups and slightly increased inflammation in men.
More widespread among men
While it is possible to prevent breakups and reduce some of the increased health risks, Lund says the results of the study do not mean you should stay with your partner at any cost – as there have been studies that demonstrate that difficult relationships can also adversely affect your health.
According to the news release, “a large part of the population in high-income countries live alone and a lot of them are doing fine because they have other social contacts. Nevertheless, people who live alone also have an increased risk of loneliness.”
In Denmark alone, the news release informs, more than one million individuals live alone. “This number has increased since the beginning of the 1990s or earlier,” the news release notes.
Thus, the news release by the University of Copenhagen recommends focusing on establishing social contacts, even in societies where many people live on their own. In November 2021, the Danish Parliament presented the first Danish national strategy to tackle loneliness, setting aside DKK 24.3 million ($3.74 million) for the project in the period 2022-2025.
“Focusing attention on the issue is a good thing. Unfortunately, the new pool contains too little research funding, and the problem is that we do not know exactly which initiatives can successfully fight loneliness, which is one potential consequence of living alone,” says Rikke Lund.
There have been steps to make loneliness a thing of the past. There are blended residential areas to prevent loneliness amongst senior citizens, where young people (e.g. university students) live with old people. There are also co-housing schemes for senior citizens.
“The people who move into co-housing schemes for senior citizens are mainly the more socioeconomically advantaged, which means that these initiatives do not help the more vulnerable. Therefore, we should continue to develop living forms that tackle the isolation that can come with living alone,” says Rikke Lund.
According to Lund, the majority of those who seek out established co-housing schemes for senior citizens are women.
“Elderly men and women demonstrate pervasive, but very different patterns when it comes to seeking out social contact. Women are far more prone to seek out the company of other people than men. This may be the reason why women who live alone have a lot of social contact, while men who live alone can be less likely to seek out company,” she says.