Life-course partnership history and midlife health behaviours in a population-based birth cohort

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Abstract

Background

Marital and partnership history is strongly associated with health in midlife and later life. However, the role of health behaviours as an explanatory mechanism remains unclear. The aim of this study was to investigate prospective associations between life-course partnership trajectories (taking into account timing, non-marital cohabitation, remarriage and marital transitions) and health behaviours measured in midlife.

Methods

We analysed data from the British National Child Development Study, a prospective cohort study that includes all people born in 1 week of March 1958 (N=10 226). This study included men and women with prospective data on partnership history from age 23 to 42–44 and health behaviours collected at ages 42–46 (2000–2004). Latent class analysis was used to derive longitudinal trajectories of partnership history. We used multivariable regression models to estimate the association between midlife health behaviours and partnership trajectory, adjusting for various early and young adult characteristics.

Results

After adjustment for a range of potential selection factors in childhood and early adulthood, we found that problem drinking, heavy drinking and smoking were more common in men and women who experienced divorce or who had never married or cohabited. Women who married later had a lower prevalence of smoking and were less likely to be overweight than those who married earlier. Overall marriage was associated with a higher body mass index. Individuals who never married or cohabited spent less time exercising.

Conclusions

Some aspects of partnership history such as remaining unpartnered and experiencing divorce are associated with more smoking and drinking in midlife, whereas marriage is associated with midlife weight gain. Despite these offsetting influences, differences in health behaviours probably account for much of the association between partnership trajectories and health found in previous studies.

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