Mountains of evidence confirm that children do best when they live with their married biological parents; no alternative family structure affords children the level of protection and stability as their natural family. Children under the pressure of a broken family suffer the predictable social ills we witness playing out daily in the news and even in our own social circles, namely higher rates of poverty, incarceration, and abuse. What many don’t know is that divorce also increases a child’s risk of devastating illnesses such as cancer, autoimmune disorders, and heart disease.

Hundreds of studies have shown that childhood stress can lead to future health risks. Case in point, a recent article titled “Childhood Trauma Leads to Life Long Chronic Illness.” The author explains how “Adverse Childhood Experiences” (ACEs) are connected to compromised health in adulthood. ACEs can include factors such as growing up with drug users, experiencing physical/emotional/sexual abuse, living with a mentally ill or criminally involved individual… and parental divorce/separation.

Divorce is fairly commonplace these days, and most wouldn’t rank it among traumas such as sexual abuse. But divorce has a major disruptive effect a child’s living situation. It impacts their economic station and strains family relationships. Some studies have even shown that for children, the negative effects of divorce are more significant and persistent than the death of a parent. (It seems a child fares better when they know that their parent didn’t make the choice to leave them.) In addition, divorce can lead to other ACEs, such as physical/sexual abuse, often times at the hands of mom’s cohabiting boyfriend.

So how does a parent’s divorce increase the likelihood that a child will suffer, say, a stroke as an adult? Researchers at Yale have recently shown that when inflammatory stress hormones flood a child’s body and brain, they alter the genes that oversee our stress reactivity, re-setting the stress response to “high” for life. This increases the risk of inflammation, which manifests later in conditions such as cancer, heart disease, and autoimmune diseases.

That increased risk is significant, to the tune of a 200-1200% increase for some chronic conditions:

“Among people reporting 4 ACEs compared to those reporting no ACEs: Health risks for suicide attempts, depression, and alcohol and other drug abuse increased 4 – 12-fold; health risks for sexually transmitted disease, greater than 50 sexual partners, poor self-rated health, and smoking increased 2 – 4-fold; and health risks for severe obesity and physical inactivity increased.”

We may not be as surprised at reports which find that ACEs such as sexual abuse leads to increased drug use and overeating as an adult. But linking a divorced home with… diabetes? Catching more colds? Developing asthma? Doubling the likelihood that kids will have problems with their gut, skin, nervous system, genitals and urinary organs? Increased cancer risks? That should stop us in our tracks.

Acknowledging that divorce carries not only long-term economic, social, and emotional consequences for kids, but physical consequences as well, should spur us to action.

  • On the policy level, we should discourage divorce except in situations where another ACE- such as parental abuse, substance abuse, or abandonment- has taken place. Otherwise, the kids bear the cost- whether it’s increased risk of poverty or depression or migraines- for their parent’s refusal to make the relationship work.
  • On a personal level, we need to refute the lie that “if the adults are happy the kids will be happy.” The adults may be happier after the divorce, but the kids will be sicker.

The correlation between divorced parents and adverse health outcomes are so strong, that any serious discussion on cutting health care costs should probably begin with cutting the divorce rate.