Previous research has linked divorce to major health problems and even early death, but few studies have examined the reasons for this link. Sleep trouble may be one of the causes, according to the University of Arizona investigators.
Their study included 138 people who had been separated or divorced for about 16 weeks. They reported on the quality of their sleep during three lab visits over seven-and-a-half months. Their blood pressure also was checked during those visits.
The researchers did not see a link between sleep problems and blood pressure in the participants' early lab visits. However, there was a delayed effect, they said.
"We saw changes in resting blood pressure were associated with sleep problems three months earlier. Earlier sleep problems predicted increases in resting blood pressure over time," study co-author David Sbarra, an associate professor of psychology, said in a university news release.
The longer participants' sleep problems lasted, the more likely they were to have a rise in blood pressure.
"What we found was if you're having sleep problems up to about 10 weeks after your separation, they don't appear to be associated with your future increase in blood pressure," Sbarra said. "However, after 10 or so weeks -- after some sustained period of time -- there seems to be a cumulative bad effect."
The study, published recently in the journal Health Psychology, only established an association between divorce-related sleep problems and higher blood pressure, not a direct cause-and-effect relationship.
"In the initial few months after a separation, sleep problems are probably pretty normal, and this is an adjustment process that people can typically cope with well," Sbarra said.
Sleep problems that persist for an extended period might mean something different, he added. "It may mean that people are potentially becoming depressed, that they're struggling with getting their life going again, and it is these people that are particularly susceptible to health problems," he explained.
The U.S. National Library of Medicine has more about divorce.