Be Wed, Be Well
Surprising health benefits come with being(happily) married
Is your wedding ring a talisman of health? Almost, it seems. Back in 1858, British epidemiologist William Farr studied mortality rates of three groups of French people— single, married and widowed—and found that the unwed died from disease in comparatively “undue proportion.” “Marriage,” he concluded, “is a healthy estate.”
Since then, the evidence has piled up. In a 2011 study of 225 people who had had cardiac bypass surgery between 1987 and 1990, 83 percent of men and 83 percent of women who were happily married were still alive 15 years later, while among the unmarried, just 27 percent of the females and 36 percent of the males survived. Research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that married folk who’d had cancer were eight to 17 percent more likely than singles to have been cured—among study participants, being hitched was a health advantage comparable to being a decade younger. And a 2006 University of Chicago study led by sociologist Linda Waite reported that, on average, husbands lived 10 years longer than bachelors, and wives outlived unmarried women by four years.
Matrimony seems to be favored even by follicles. In a study presented at last year’s meeting of the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, 84 females were tracked, and to rule out genetic factors they were all identical twins. “Those who were divorced or widowed exhibited more hair loss than married women,” the society reports.
Is marriage, then, the key to health? Experts say it isn’t quite that simple. “This has become a frequently studied subject in recent years,” says Charles Goodstein, M.D., a psychiatrist at Englewood Hospital and Medical Center. “We know correlations more than causes, and in many cases no one truly knows the why.” It’s possible, for example, that causation runs both ways, that healthier folks may be more likely to marry in the first place.
Still, the data and the experts point to five areas in which marriage is linked to health benefits—areas that offer lessons for us all, whether or not we wear a wedding band:
“When you’re married, you tend to take better care of your eating habits,” says Gabriela Cora, M.D., a Miami-based marriage specialist with the American Psychiatric Association. Alone, you may feel lazy about preparing a well-balanced dinner. But when there are two of you, cooking nutritious fare can turn into fun together time. “There are fewer skipped meals because chances are you’re chopping and sautéing not only for yourself, but also for your partner,” says Dr. Cora.
When we’re stressed, the hypothalamus—that complicated little midbrain structure that connects our nervous systems to our endocrine systems—tells the adrenal gland to pump cortisol, a steroid hormone. Cortisol, in turn, initiates our “fight or flight” response, helping us flee the ravenous lion or the careening New York City cab. This is effective in the short term, but we now know that long-term, modern-world stress can take a devastating toll. The good news? Marriage seems either to quiet the hypothalamus or to cut back on those cortisol secretions; scientists don’t know for sure which. “Over time, intense stress can lead to heart disease, hypertension, a decreased chance of surviving cancer and slower healing following surgery,” says Dr. Goodstein. “The trick is discovering a way to control stress, and to some extent married adults seem to have found it.” In a University of Virginia experiment, happily married women were given mild electric shocks alone and while holding their husbands’ hands. EKGs showed that the hand-holders derived a calming benefit similar to that of a pain-relieving drug.
Don’t overlook the positive power of nagging, says Dr. Goodstein. Directing a spouse’s attention to an unhealthy habit may annoy at first, but over time it can promote a healthier lifestyle. Indeed, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that married men and women are less likely than singles to smoke or consume excessive amounts of alcohol and—as a bonus—also get fewer headaches.
4 Medical coaching.
Nagging isn’t just about vices. A spouse at your side can remind you of your yearly physical exam or mammogram, or notice developing symptoms you alone might ignore. Says Dr. Goodstein: “Think of the wife who calls her husband’s attention to something he’d rather deny and makes him seek medical attention, thereby lengthening his life.” A husband or wife can also be an effective advocate when you’re sick. A University of Maryland study released this September found that 33 percent of married patients with lung cancer were still alive three years after diagnosis, compared with just 10 percent of single patients. Other research shows similar findings for men with prostate cancer and women with breast cancer. Spouse support may be a factor. “It’s helpful to have a partner operating in your best interests, asking questions and making sure you’re receiving top care, especially when you’re groggy or in pain,” says Dr. Cora.
Despite all the jokes about family pressures and the disillusionments of routine, being married means you have an available partner at bedtime—and a 2006 U.K. study confirms that married people do have more intercourse than single folk. Thus they get more of this activity’s positive physical and psychological effects. Says Dr. Cora: “It’s a great de-stressor, and it burns calories!” Still, don’t rush out and tie the knot for medical reasons alone. Remember, marriage’s health benefits apply to happy unions. Indeed, in the post-bypass surgery study where 83 percent of happily wed women were long-term survivors, the figure for unhappy wives was just 28 percent. (Hapless hubbies did somewhat better, at 60 percent.) The unhappily hitched, says Dr. Cora, “may have more stress than people who’ve led relatively content single lives.”
Related Read: How Friends Keep You Healthy