Valentine’s Day is still fresh in our minds as is Obama’s State of The Union Address, where among other things, he has promised healthcare for all. So to me it seems only logical to ask, “Is marriage healthy for you?”
Increasingly, Americans are opting out of marriage. A fairly recent report from the Pew Research Institute revealed that the number of new marriages is down 5% from 2009 to 2010 and that barely half of all adults in the United States are currently married.
The median age at first marriage for brides has reached a new peak of 26.5 years and for grooms it is also at its highest point at 28.7 years. That is quite different from 1960 when median ages at first marriage for new brides was 20.3 years and for grooms it was 22.8.
According to the Pew Institute report, 72% of all adults over the age of 18 were married in 1960. Today that percentage is down to 51%.
If we look at the 50 years since 1960 while the number of marriages was on the decline, world-wide life expectancy went from 52.6 in 1960 to 69.4 years in 2012. In addition, since 1960, there have been reductions in death due to chronic diseases such as heart disease and stroke. Unfortunately, according to the CDC, we are seeing little decline or even a slight increase in deaths due to diabetes, chronic lung disease and chronic kidney disease. We all know that obesity is, well, spreading.
This short digression brings me back to my original question: Is marriage good for you? Here is what the research shows.
A 2006 article published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health found that people who have never married have the highest risk of death in the United States. The study also found that compared with married people, people divorced or separated are 27% more likely to die, and people who have never married 58% more likely to die.
But what about couples who just live together. They cohabitate and seem to be just like married couples, but they aren’t married. That is certainly an increasingly common experience in the United States and worldwide. A recent study published in the Journal of Marriage and Family addressed this issue.
The study found that divorced, widowed and never-married white men had higher mortality rates than cohabiting white men, and never-married black men had higher mortality rates than cohabiting black men. In contrast, the mortality rates of non-married white and black women were not different from those of their cohabiting counterparts. Interestingly, the results also revealed that mortality rates of married white men and women were lower than their cohabiting counterparts and that these mortality differences tended to decrease with age. Married black men or women did not live significantly longer than their cohabiting counterparts. So gender and race do play a role, but in general, marriage increases longevity.
Additional studies have also found that married couples experience lower rates of heart disease, cancers, Alzheimer’s and depression and married people live longer if they get these diseases. All this does seem to say there is a marriage advantage.
Staying married also seems to be good for your health. A 2009 study in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior tracked nearly 9,000 men and women in their 50s and 60s. The researchers found that when married couples became single again by either divorce or death of a spouse, their physical health declined and they never fully recovered. In fact, they were 20% more likely to develop a chronic health issue like heart disease and diabetes than those still married to their first wife or husband by middle age. The divorced or widowed individuals also had more problems going up and down stairs or walking longer and in general aged less gracefully.
What happens if those widowed or divorced individuals remarry? The study above seemed to suggest that healed their increased risk of depression as much as staying continuously married, but the remarried continued to experience 12% more chronic disease and 19% more mobility problems.
This brings me to the subject of whether or not to get a divorce. There is a down side to remaining in a hostile, negative marriage. An article in JAMA Psychiatry proved that couples in these types of hostile marriages suffer emotionally and physically. Their immune systems become suppressed just as in any chronically stressful experience. It becomes the drip-drip of a stress torture test and that isn’t healthy or happy. The more hostile the relationship, the greater the impact on health.
So in the afterglow of this years Valentines Day, which the February 14th issue of the WSJ defined as an $18.6 Billion industry, what have we learned about the health benefits of marriage?
Here’s my advice. From a physical and emotional perspective, you are best off being happily married. No question about it. If you are unhappily married, try to work it out. If you either can’t or won’t work it out, it’s better to get out. But in order to not get to that point, don’t go for the jugular; don’t punch below the belt. Arguments are best recovered from if there is civility; some element of touch, some words of endearment rather than total hostility. “Sweetheart, you are making me mental!” is a much better retort than, “You %*$!#. Try to make up. Try to reconcile. Try to balance the emotional ledger. If both parties are committed, it’s never to late to repair. Marriage is good for your health.