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Parental divorce linked to stroke in males

Men who experienced parental divorce before they turned 18 face a higher risk of stroke, U of T researchers say (Photo by Caz Zyvatkauskas)

Men with divorced parents are significantly more likely to suffer a stroke than men from intact families, shows a new study from the University of Toronto.

The study, to be published this month in the International Journal of Stroke, shows that adult men who had experienced parental divorce before they turned 18 are three times more likely to suffer a stroke than men whose parents did not divorce. Women from divorced families did not have a higher risk of stroke than women from intact families.

“The strong association we found for males between parental divorce and stroke is extremely concerning,” says lead author Esme Fuller-Thomson, Sandra Rotman Chair at U of T’s Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work and Department of Family and Community Medicine.

It’s the latest in a series of studies by Fuller-Thomson that indicate the lingering effects of childhood trauma. A study published last month in the journal Child Abuse & Neglect found that men who experienced childhood sexual abuse were three times more likely to have a heart attack than all other men – while women had no increased likelihood of heart attack. (You can read about those findings here.)

As with the previous study, researchers took into account other risk factors that could affect the health of adult men.

 “It is particularly perplexing in light of the fact we excluded from our study individuals who had been exposed to any form of family violence or parental addictions. We had anticipated that the association between the childhood experience of parental divorce and stroke may have been due to other factors such as riskier health behaviors or lower socioeconomic status among men whose parents had divorced,” says recent U of T graduate and co-author Angela Dalton. “However, we controlled statistically for most of the known risk factors for stroke, including age, race, income and education, adult health behaviors (smoking, exercise, obesity, and alcohol use) social support, mental health status and health care coverage. 

“Even after these adjustments, parental divorce was still associated with a threefold risk of stroke among males.”

Researchers cannot say with certainty why men from divorced families had triple the risk of stroke, but one possibility lies in the body’s regulation of cortisol, a hormone associated with stress.

The elevated rate of stroke could be linked to a process known as biological embedding, says Fuller-Thomson.

“It is possible that exposure to the stress of parental divorce may have biological implications that change the way these boys react to stress for the rest of their lives” says Fuller-Thomson.

As with all scientific research, it is essential for many researchers to replicate findings from this study in prospective studies before it is safe to draw any conclusions about causality, Fuller-Thomson says.

“If these findings are replicated in other studies,” says Fuller Thomson, “then perhaps health professionals will include information on a patient’s parental divorce status to improve targeting of stroke prevention education.”

Internationally, stroke and other cerebrovascular diseases account for 10 per cent of deaths, making stroke the second leading cause of death.