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May 02, 2014 09:04 AM EDT

Divorce Rates in Older Couples Higher When Wives Fall Sick, Study

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Older married couples are more likely to get divorced if the wife develops a serious health condition than the husband, according to a University of Michigan study.

"Married women diagnosed with a serious health condition may find themselves struggling with the impact of their disease while also experiencing the stress of divorce," Amelia Karraker, a researcher at the Institute for Social Research, said in a statement.

Through the study, the researchers wanted to find out how four serious physical illnesses - cancer, heart problems, lung disease and stroke - negatively affect marriages in older couples. For the study, the researchers analyzed 20 years of data from 2,717 marriages from the Health and Retirement Study. At the start of the study, at least one member of each couple was aged above 50.

The researchers found that over 31 percent of the participants' marriage ended in divorce. Karraker said that women are at an increased risk of being widowed if the husband suffers from a serious illness and more inclined to get divorced if they are the ones who fall sick. In both cases, women are reported to be the sufferers.

The study did not find any evidence as to why women are more prone to termination of marriage in the face of illness.

Karraker said that gender norms and social expectations might make it difficult for men to provide care to their sick spouses. Plus, divorced older men have higher chances of finding prospective partners than divorced women.

The study also did not determine as to which of the spouses filed for more divorces. Karraker said that in most of the cases it's the woman who initiates a divorce. When their husbands fail to take proper care of them, women let go of them for better care from other family members and friends.

Karraker said that policy makers should offer increased support services to spousal caregivers in an attempt to lower marital stress and divorce rates at older ages.

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