American Sociological Association

In Sickness and in Health? Physical Illness as a Risk Factor for Marital Dissolution in Later Life

The health consequences of marital dissolution are well known, but little work has examined the impact of health on the risk of marital dissolution. We use a sample of 2,701 marriages from the Health and Retirement Study to examine the role of serious physical illness onset in subsequent marital dissolution via either divorce or widowhood. We use a series of discrete time event history models with competing risks to estimate the impact of husband’s and wife’s physical illness onset on risk of divorce and widowhood. We find that only measures of wife’s illness onset are associated with elevated risk of divorce, while measures of either spouse’s illness onset is associated with elevated risk of widowhood. Further, in the case of heart problems, we find that this gender difference is statistically significant. These findings suggest health as a determinant of marital dissolution in later life via both biological and gendered social pathways.


Karraker, A., Latham, K.





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