A new study shows that a marriage is more likely to fall apart if the wife falls ill.

London - Family breakdown is as devastating for today’s children as it was when divorce was a source of social disgrace, a state-backed report warned recently.

Even though divorce is no longer considered “shameful” – as it was until the 1970s – the children of broken families continue to suffer destructive effects throughout their lives, the report said.

The paper, produced by a team of senior academics, found that the damage caused to a child by divorce continues to blight his or her life as far as old age.

It said parental separation in childhood was “consistently associated with psychological distress in adulthood during people’s early 30s”. The report added: “This seems to be true even across different generations, which suggests that as divorce and separation have become more common, their impact on mental health has not reduced.”

It comes a week after figures were published showing that almost half of all children have now seen their parents break up by the time they are 15.

The report said that good health depends on lifestyle conditions that it termed “social medicines”. Key among these is a stable family background.

The findings undermine the claims of politicians, lawyers and activists who have argued for years that divorce causes no harm to children if parents part amicably and without conflict.

“Family life has undergone dramatic changes over recent decades,” the report, produced by a team led by Professor Mel Bartley, said.

“Families no longer have to have two parents, they can contain children from different parents, and parents no longer have to be of different genders.”

But it warned: “More freedom also means less certainty, and this has led to concerns about the impact of family stability on the health and well-being of both children and adults.

“Family living arrangements are related to children’s physical health.

“Children whose parents remain married throughout the early childhood years are less likely to suffer from breathing problems such as asthma, to become overweight, or to be injured in accidents by the time they are five years old than children who have experienced a more unstable family situation.”

The report – published by the Government’s Economic and Social Research Council – added that the teenage years are ‘a time when risks accumulated since childhood start to snowball, affecting the behaviour of young people and their timely transition to adulthood’.

Tests to check levels of cortisol, a hormone linked to stress, show childhood experiences may affect people through their lives, the report said.

“We have measured cortisol levels in thousands of adults at the age of around 60 to find evidence of long-term effects of psychological stress in childhood,” it said.

‘People were asked if they had been separated for more than one year from their mothers. The people who had experienced this much separation were found to have higher cortisol levels.

“This tells us that childhood separation appears to result in an increased risk of a less healthy stress response many years later in adulthood.”

The paper said: “People who suffer stresses such as parental divorce in childhood are at a higher risk of social and psychological problems later in their adult lives.”

The research was based on the large-scale British Cohort Studies, which cover people born in 1946, 1958, 1970, and, most recently, in the 2000 Millennium Study. ESRC academics also took into account a series of independent smaller-scale projects.

Millennium Study results show that fewer than five percent of girls and only seven percent of boys from traditional families have behavioural difficulties at age five. Among unemployed lone mother families, the figures are 18 percent for girls and 22 percent for boys.

Fewer than 24,000 couples were divorced in a year in 1960, but following 1960s liberal reforms numbers multiplied and divorce peaked in 1993 at 165,000. They have since fallen to just below 120,000, largely because many couples now cohabit rather than marry.

Cohabitation has fuelled the rate of family break-up, because cohabitees are three times more likely to separate than married couples.

- Daily Mail