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Years lived alone and/or serial break-ups strongly linked to inflammation in men

Men tend to externalize their behavior following a partnership break-up, by drinking, for example, whereas women tend to internalize, manifest in depressive symptoms, which may influence inflammatory levels differently.

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Living alone for several years and/or experiencing serial relationship break-ups are strongly linked to raised levels of inflammatory markers in the blood–but only in men–finds a large population study published in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health.

Although the inflammation was classified as low grade, it was persistent, and most likely indicates a heightened risk of age-related ill health and death, suggest the researchers.

Divorce and committed relationship break-ups, which are often followed by a potentially lengthy period of living alone, have been associated with a heightened risk of poor physical and mental health, lowered immunity, and death. But most previously published studies have focused on the impact of one partnership dissolution, and then usually only on marital break-ups. 

The researchers therefore wanted to find out what impact an accumulated number of partnership break-ups or years lived alone might have on the immune system response in middle-age, and whether gender and educational attainment might be influential. 

They drew on information submitted to the Copenhagen Aging and Midlife Biobank (CAMB) study by 4,835 participants, all of whom were aged between 48 and 62. Around half the participants had experienced a partnership break-up, and a similar percentage had lived more than 1 year alone (54% of women, 49% of men). 

Among men, the highest levels of inflammatory markers were found in those who had experienced the most partnership break-ups. They had 17% higher levels of  inflammatory markers than those in the reference group. Similarly, levels of inflammatory markers were up to 12% higher in the group who had spent the most years living alone (7 or more). 

And the highest levels of both inflammatory markers for years lived alone were observed among men with high educational attainment and 2–6 years living alone (CRP), and 7 or more years spent alone (IL-6). 

But these findings were observed only among the men; no such associations were found among the women.

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Men tend to externalize their behavior following a partnership break-up, by drinking, for example, whereas women tend to internalize, manifest in depressive symptoms, which may influence inflammatory levels differently, note the researchers.

“Small numbers of breakups or years lived alone is not in itself a risk of poor health, but the combination of (many) years lived alone and several break-ups is in our study shown to affect both CRP and IL-6 levels significantly,” write the researchers.

Also, “the levels of inflammation in our study are low, but they are also significant, clinically relevant, and most likely a risk factor for increased mortality,” they point out, adding that there are “notable numbers of people living with low level inflammation.”

They continue: “Since the number of one-person households has been increasing throughout the past 50–60 years in most high-income countries, this group of people going through relationship break-ups, or who are living on their own for different reasons, are part of at-risk groups.”

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