According to the study, from the University of Toronto and published this month in the International Journal of Stroke, adult men have a 3 times higher chance to stroke if their parents were divorced before they reached 18, compared to those whose parents were together.
On the contrary, women who have divorced parents have no greater risk of stroke than other females from intact families.
The powerful relationship identified for males between parental divorce and stroke is very alarming, Esme Fuller-Thomson, head author and Sandra Rotman Chair at University of Toronto's Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work and Department of Family and Community Medicine, noted.
Angela Dalton, co-author and University of Toronto recent graduate, said:
"It is particularly perplexing in light of the fact we excluded from our study individuals who had been exposed to any form of family violence or parental addictions. We had anticipated that the association between the childhood experience of parental divorce and stroke may have been due to other factors such as riskier health behaviors or lower socioeconomic status among men whose parents had divorced."
However, she pointed out, they controlled for variables that could potentially affect the results, such as income and education, race, age, social support, mental health status, health care coverage, and adult health behaviors (obesity, alcohol use, exercise, and smoking).
After adjusting for these factors, parental divorce was still associated with a three times increased risk of stroke among males.
Although the scientists cannot pinpoint a reason why these males from divorced families had a higher risk of stroke with total confidence, one possibility could be because of an increased amount of cortisol, a hormone associated with stress.
A process known as biological embedding could be linked to this elevated rate of stroke, Fuller-Thomson said. "It is possible that exposure to the stress of parental divorce may have biological implications that change the way these boys react to stress for the rest of their lives."
Exercise may be a good way to relieve some of the stress they experience after their parents' divorce. In fact, research from 2009 in Neurology suggests that men who regularly take part in moderate-to-heavy intensity exercise such as swimming, tennis or jogging may have a lower chance of stroke than those who get no exercise or only light exercise.
It is necessary for more research to be conducted that can replicate these findings before any inferences can be made about causality. In the future, the results could potentially impact the policy on stroke education, as stroke is the second leading cause of death internationally.
"Then perhaps health professionals will include information on a patient's parental divorce status to improve targeting of stroke prevention education," Fuller-Thompson explained.
Written by Sarah Glynn