A woman who has been through a divorce faces a higher risk of heart attack than one who has been steadily married, and the risk remains higher even if she remarries, a study indicates.

The risk for a woman who's gone through one divorce increases 24 percent above that versus a woman who's remained married, and a second divorce can push that risk up 77 percent, researchers at Duke University report.

"Divorce is a major stressor, and we have long known that people who are divorced suffer more health consequences," says Matthew Dupre, associate professor of medicine and lead author of the study. "But this is one of the first studies to look at the cumulative effect of divorce over a long period. We found that it can have a lasting imprint on people's health."

The study, published in the American Heart Association's journal Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes, reported some gender differences when it comes to divorce and heart problems.

Although men in general face higher risks of heart attacks, divorce appears to have more of an impact on women, the researchers found; men divorced once have the same risk as men who stay married, and it's only after a second split that men see their heart attack risk increase over that faced by long-married men.

Also, while the risk of a heart attack remains elevated for divorced women even if they remarry, men who remarry after a divorce see their risk go back down to the same level as continuously married men.

For the study, the researchers looked at data on around 15,000 adults who were between age 45 and 80 at the start of the 18-year study.

Some 14 percent of the men and 19 percent of the women were divorced when the study started, and by the finish of the study period, more than a third had been divorced at least once.

During those 18 years, heart attacks were reported in 1,211 people in the study group, and those who suffered the attacks were more likely to have been divorced, the researchers found.

"Earlier studies have suggested that marital loss has a greater impact on the health of women than men," Dupre says. "The reasons for these differences are not entirely known; however, the prevailing view is that divorced women suffer greater economic losses and emotional distress than divorced men."

Recognizing that divorce can increase the risks of heart attack could help doctors in their screening of divorced patients and in their decision-making about their health risk, he says.

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