February 2, 2006
Study confirms physical toll of stressful
Univ. of Mich.
ANN ARBOR, Mich. — The death of a child. Divorce. An
assault. Loss of a job. These and other highly stressful events
can take a toll on physical health and mortality many years
later, according to a University of Michigan study published in
the current issue of the Journal of Health and Social Behavior.
And life-altering events like these are especially likely to
happen to people with low levels of education and income, the
Overall, the study found that nearly half of a nationally
representative sample of 3,617 U.S. adults had experienced at
least one of four major life stresses at the start of the study.
About 12 percent had been widowed, 25 percent had been divorced,
11 percent had lost a child and about 16 percent had been the
victim of a serious physical assault.
They found that the more negative events people experienced,
the higher their risk of death. Considering many other factors,
those experiencing more of these serious life events had a 25
percent higher mortality rate over the next eight years.
The findings are among the first from longitudinal studies to
support the popular belief that "allostatic
load"—the cumulative impact of stress from personal
loss and bad luck—takes a toll on health and mortality. The
study, funded by a grant from the National Institute on Aging,
followed the same people over a period of eight years.
"We expected to find socioeconomic differences in the
prevalence of many stressful events," said Paula Lantz, the
U-M researcher who was lead author of the study. "But the
magnitude of many of these differences was surprising."
For example, among those ages 25 to 44, about 11 percent of
those without a high school diploma had a child who died,
compared with just 1 percent of those with a college degree.
Among middle-aged adults, the percentages were higher but the
pattern was the same. About 23 percent of those with the least
education had a child who died, compared with 6.5 percent of the
Other notable differences:
• About 16 percent of middle-aged people without a high
school degree had been widowed, compared with only 6 percent of
the most educated.
• About 31 percent of the least educated young adults had
been physically assaulted, compared with 17 percent of the most
"By the time people reach the age of 65, the differences
are not as pronounced," Lantz said. "At that stage of
life, bad things like the death of a child or the loss of a
spouse have unfortunately caught up with more people at all
levels of income and education."
The study also measured three main types of chronic stress:
financial, marital and parental stress. It found that significant
socioeconomic differences in these types of
stress—especially financial stress—contributed to
large disparities in health status and mortality over time. Taken
together, the results support the belief that differential
exposure to stress and negative life events helps produce
socioeconomic inequalities in health.
"The chances that bad things will happen to people are
strongly related to their income and education levels,"
Lantz said, "and the impact of these negative events, along
with the wear-and-tear of chronic financial and parental stress,
translate into poorer health and greater mortality for millions