British Columbia

UBC study shows negative thinking, divorce, financial difficulties increase risk of death

It’s clear that smoking and alcohol abuse can contribute to an early death, but new research from the University of British Columbia reveals some social and behavioral factors — like negative self-talk, divorce and unemployment — can also increase one’s risk of death.

Study shows social and behavioral factors interacting with one another impact mortality

A new UBC study looked at the top 10 non-biological factors related to increased risk of death. (Kzenon/Shutterstock)

It's clear that smoking and alcohol abuse can contribute to an early death, but new research from the University of British Columbia reveals some social and behavioural factors — like negative emotions, divorce and unemployment — can also increase one's risk of death.

Researchers analyzed data from 13,611 adults in the U.S. between 1992 and 2008, and then identified which factors applied to those who died between 2008 and 2014. 

Smoking, divorce and alcohol abuse were the top three shown to have the closest connection to an increased risk of death out of 57 social and behavioural factors examined.

The study found the other factors in order of their significance were:

  • Recent financial difficulties.
  • History of unemployment.
  • Previous history as a smoker.
  • Lower life satisfaction.
  • Never having been married.
  • History of food stamps.
  • Negative affectivity.

"Negative affectivity is the concept that you are experiencing more negative emotion," said the study's lead author and UBC kinesiology assistant professor, Eli Puterman.

"It's a psychological construct that really has been very deeply connected to disease risk and mortality risk," he said.

Medical conditions and biological factors are frequently used to study life expectancy, but the UBC research intentionally excluded those in favour of social, psychological, economic, and behavioural factors. 

The data came from the U.S. Health and Retirement Study, with participants ranging in age from 50 to 104, with an average age of 69. 

Puterman wants other researchers and policy makers to take a close look at the study's findings with an eye to targeting new interventions, because "it can't just be about smoking, it can't just be about alcohol use."

"We have to think bigger. We have to think that there are more factors that are all interacting with one another, probably shaping our mortality from early childhood all the way through late adulthood."

Puterman's colleagues from the University of Pennsylvania, Johns Hopkins University, University of California San Francisco, and Stanford University contributed to the study, which was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on June 22.

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