The health advantages of marriage

Robert H. Shmerling, MD
Robert H. Shmerling, MD, Faculty Editor, Harvard Health Publications

Follow me on Twitter @RobShmerling

“My wife and I were happy for 20 years. Then we met.”

That’s just one of many Rodney Dangerfield jokes that don’t exactly paint a rosy picture of marriage. But, according to a new study, being married might just save your life.

Okay, that might be an overstatement. But there is fascinating — and compelling — research suggesting that married people enjoy better health than single people. For example, as compared with those who are single, those who are married tend to

  • live longer
  • have fewer strokes and heart attacks
  • have a lower chance of becoming depressed
  • be less likely to have advanced cancer at the time of diagnosis and more likely to survive cancer for a longer period of time
  • survive a major operation more often.

This doesn’t mean that just being married automatically provides these health benefits. People in stressful, unhappy marriages may be worse off than a single person who is surrounded by supportive and caring friends, family, and loved ones. Interestingly, many of these health benefits are more pronounced for married men than for married women.

A newly recognized “marriage benefit” for the heart?

A recent study of 25,000 people in England found that among people having a heart attack, those who were married were 14% more likely to survive and they were able to leave the hospital two days sooner than single people having a heart attack.

This study was presented at a medical conference, so the results should be considered preliminary. But it does raise some questions. For example, were the heart attacks of single people more severe than those in people who were married? And was the health of the single heart attack victims worse before the heart attack than that of the married group?

The headlines describing this study might have single people feeling even more pressured than before to find a marriage partner. I think that would be unfortunate, as a study of this type can only conclude there is an “association” or link between marriage and better health outcomes after a heart attack — but it cannot say with confidence that marriage is the reason for that benefit.

How does this work?

Given the growing body of evidence linking marriage with better health, it’s worth asking why such a connection might exist. A number of researchers have explored this question. Here are some of the more prominent theories.

  • It’s all about immune function. Studies have found that people in happy relationships have stronger immune function than those who are not. And, cortisol tends to be released in lower amounts in married people as compared with those who are single. That may be important because cortisol levels tend to reflect levels of stress, and high cortisol levels can impair immune function.
  • Your behavior improves with marriage. Married people may take fewer risks, eat better, and maintain healthier lifestyles, on average, compared with single people. There is also evidence that married people tend to keep regular doctors’ appointments and follow doctors’ recommendations more often than single people.
  • Mental health is better when you’re married. Poor social supports (as might be more likely for those who are single) have been strongly linked with higher rates of depression, loneliness, and social isolation, which have in turn been associated with poorer health outcomes.
  • Married people have better health before getting married. It’s reasonable to wonder whether people with medical problems (or who are prone to them due to unhealthy habits) are less likely to get married; that would leave healthier people getting married and that could account for the “marriage health benefit.” But, some studies have actually found that unhealthy men tend to marry at a younger age and divorce less often than healthy men.

None of the evidence in support of these theories proves (or refutes) a health benefit to marriage. So, if there is a health benefit to marriage, the precise reason is not known. But researchers continue to study the question.

What’s next?

I think that in the future we will have a better understanding of the health effects of social supports, including marriage. Then, our focus can turn to another important question: so what? If marriage is truly a predictor of better health, can this knowledge be used to improve health? For example, if a single person has a heart attack, is there some way that this “higher risk” individual can be treated differently to improve the outcome?

It seems likely that Mr. Dangerfield’s comments about marriage were mostly (or totally) for laughs — but even if his marriage made him miserable (as he so often suggested), it may still have been good for his health.

Comments:

  1. Nangozo

    The ideal marriage is of benefit. A marriage where the partners share views, beliefs, and support each other in times of happiness and sadness, in times of wealth and in poverty. Also where the partners trust each other and value their relationship. God created Adam and Eve for a good reason, to make each other happy. our choices in life make marriage hell on earth so much that some have come out of it never wanting to go back. some have died in the course of persisting in marriage. It is up to the partners to make their marriage a happy one and enjoy the benefits of being married.

  2. Nisar Shah

    marriage and health are synergistic in human life. it is true that marriage people are more healthy and stable mind than a single. It is my observation that early age marriages have good effect on humans in respect of long live, less diseased, and useful citizen in the society. this survey has emerge good results and i agree with the results. “HAPPY MARRIAGE” is good-health.

  3. Jana

    I read sometime ago that the benefits of marriage are mostly for men. For senior women, not having a husband seems to work better as long as they are financially secure .

  4. Carol in Pennsylvania

    Yes the happiest people in long marriages are those who progress together “in time.” Meaning …one spouse stays “put” in time……………their chronological brain is in 1980 and the other spouse moves on to present day.

    Then to make matters worse one spouse retires and now the marriage eventually becomes confrontational over their differences. One spouse keeps up with technology, exercises, eats healthy, reads to educate self, the other keeps gaining weight, eats unhealthy, watches TV 10 hours a day, doesn’t help with housework, get the picture? That’s the spouse who drives the healthy one nuts.

    I can guarantee you that this survey of long healthy marriages being happy is an absolute fantasy. Very few marriages fit this bill.

    I know so many marriages that one spouse is deathly sick, and the other does nothing but caregiving. I know marriages that both are very sick, it’s Parkinson’s, heart, lung abnormalities, and cancer, with the added problems of glaucoma, obesity, etc.

    So what does the healthy spouse do, he/she gets a job for at least 5 hours a day! It works because I did it!

    if you have a significant other, analyze very carefully everything in your relationship, every tiny detail for many years before you tie the knot.

    • Katz

      isn’t caring for each other part of the marriage deal? Just because one is no longer well, does it make marriage unhealthy? If everyone thinks only about themselves, the sick, the poor, the lonely will be hopeless. Life is not just about happiness, ir’s purpose is far above self-serving. Caring for each other is not only fulfilling but happiness at a higher level.

  5. Caitriona Foley

    I think the quality of the marriage is a key factor in the over all health of both individuals. Where open clear communication is taking place and there is a basis of dignity and respect then both partners have the opportunity to flourish grow and support eacj other in becoming better human beings. These skills are needed in every marriage and are not really taught. Assertiveness with out judgment. Listening with compassion. Managing ones emotions are all tools that are the building blocks of a good marriage. Every married person gets up in the morning doing the ir best but without these skills its very difficult. So I would love to see a study which involved the creation of a course which up skilled married people to communicate well through difficult times and then track their progress. We get lessons to drive a car why not some on how to treat and love our nearest and dearest.
    Kind regards
    Caitriona Foley

  6. Enrique Burunat

    This article supports that Love Is Not An Emotion but a phisiological motivation, as hunger, thirst, sleep or sex. That is the title of a paper just published in December in a psychological journal, Psychology. The teams of Dr. Helen Fisher, or Dr. Semir Zeki, and many others, have very interesting findings about causes and consequences of love in the brain and in the body. Thank you.

  7. Shirley Colee

    In terms of mental health, studies have long shown that the happiest group is married men, followed by single women, followed by married men, followed by single men who are the least happy.
    Men benefit most by marriage.

  8. Tahir Mahmood

    A happy marriage life may definitely contribute / cast good signs on the health of partners otherwise a bad experience can devastate the whole situation making all the plus points into negative. Whole the depressions and ailments endangered ones life before time. To live a healthy life spouses must take care of each other.

  9. Asif Ekbal Arif

    Happy life after marriage depends on some key determinants including the capability of livelihood support, fearless of sharing views, household patter whether someone is living a single household or joint, social and environmental surroundings where someone gets supports to face constrains, the mutual alliance between husband and wife to face both economic and environmental uncertainty in the household. Happy marital life provides divinity but at the same time it should bear in mind that unhappy marital life is hundred times worse than the
    life before marriage.

  10. Doris

    This effect on health, I think, should more aptly be called “the caring wife-effect on health” – at least as the first and foremost hypothesis, as there is an overall tendency among women to be caring (of course theere are exceptions, but not so many that it shows in these statistics, it seems). From the evidence the article above gives, I can not at all conclude that there is a very strong “caring husband-effect on health”, but, indeed, there might be, if researchers would accurately differentiate between caring and non-caring/indifferent or even burdensome husbands. It seems to me researchers are surprisingly blind to which variables to keep checked in these cases – and that’s poor science, I’m sorry to say. But I thank you for a thought-provoking article! (And dear sisters troubled by difficult marriages, put an end to your unhappy marriages, through counseling or divorce, as cautiously as possible, because if you don’t thrive in marriage, it is not good for your health to stay married… get support first, though.)

  11. John Roger

    You’re possibly correct however the key words here are a happy and fulfilling marriage.
    If one is often riddled with stress and tension then I do no see the health benefits.

  12. Christine

    Half of marriages end in divorce. It is financially devastating and I am being taken to the cleaners in spite of all the care and financial support for 34 years to my lying cheating stealing spouse. I can tell you that divorce is not healthy since it robs the security and well being of folks such as this cancer survivor.

  13. Mary B

    Sociologists have studied this for a long time; I’m surprised the article seems incurious about gender differences. Being married is good for heterosexual men because women pay attention to their spouses’ health and diet, and push them to get medical tests. Men in poor health may marry sooner and stay married longer because they tend to be dependent on their wives; I don’t know the more recent work on same-sex spouses. Some women also enjoy an advantage, in that they may feel more responsible than single childless women to their families for maintaining their health. Since it looks like the wheel needs to be reinvented on this issue, given same-sex marriages (and the tendency of previous studies to ignore long-term unmarried couples) I hope new studies are looking at the health benefits of single motherhood–though given the stress of combining work with single parenting they’re unlikely to be as high as the benefit straight men get from being married.

  14. Bella DePaulo

    There is SO much wrong with this. I am a Harvard PhD and have taught grad courses in research methods for decades. The methodological issues are egregious. Here’s my latest, most comprehensive critique: amazon.com/The-Science-Marriage-What-Know/dp/1508597774/?tag=wwwbelladepau-20
    Here’s more: belladepaulo.com/2013/12/getting-married-and-not-getting-healthy-what-decades-of-research-really-shows/
    And here’s my shortest version, published in the Washington Post, washingtonpost.com/news/in-theory/wp/2016/02/08/everything-you-think-you-know-about-single-people-is-wrong/?utm_term=.dec0eaaaedf6 Please stop perpetuating the myth that if only single people would get married, they would become healthier. It just isn’t true. The links I’ve posted will lead you to detailed critiques of many studies.

  15. May

    If getting marriage is good for my health,
    would you give me or send me a husband?
    I even do not have a partner, how can I get marriage?
    I think many people in this would know the benefit from marriage and want to get marriage,
    but we just can not get marriage.
    Therefore this article does not help.
    Thanks for sharing

    • Effemberg

      It may not be of help to you; but millions around the world does find it very, very helpful.

      That something doesn’t favour one person does not mean it is not good. Just find a way to fit in, or get something else.

  16. Jenna

    Being married makes you fat and sad

  17. ELIZABETH JOE

    Lizzy
    I am married for like seven years now but have been suffering from loneliness and rejection but presently l have been over stretched by thinking and its affecting badly in such a way that am feeling pains in my heart and stomach with dizziness, and l Dont understand my health status anymore. Doctor can you please share more light on this.secondly l am just 34years of age and l Dont menstration anymore what could have caused it.

  18. bedava okey oyna

    he study shows an association between marriage and health. We then go on to speculate why being married may “cause” a person to have better health. I am curious. bedavaokeyoyna.org

  19. Michael Lorton

    The study shows an association between marriage and health. We then go on to speculate why being married may “cause” a person to have better health. I am curious. Has anyone considered the possibility that healthy people are more likely to be considered good mates, and that, in fact, good genes and good health “cause” marriage?

  20. Jorge Avila

    I think it’s possible… May be married people concerns about getting well very fast in order to reduce problems to his or her partner subconsciously, and they induce themselves into a placebo effect that improves their replenishment and recovery capabilities.

  21. Terry Goldman

    None of the suggested theories would differ from simply being in an extended close family — sibllings, cousins, … Has anyone done a regression on singles who are physically far from relatives, vs. those with helpful relatives close by?

  22. Ellen

    I wonder if the ‘marriage effect’ on heart attacks is primarily a matter of people who are married go in for treatment sooner when they experience symptoms because there is someone right there to say “no, this doesn’t seem to me like your normal aches and pains, you need to have it checked out.”

  23. Terrence forest

    live longer
    have fewer strokes and heart attacks
    have a lower chance of becoming depressed
    be less likely to have advanced cancer at the time of diagnosis and more likely to survive cancer for a longer period of time
    survive a major operation more often.
    This list is diffently a good reason to get married. I’m getting married in April.

  24. Jenn

    Are there differences based on gender?

    • Howard S. Friedman

      Yes there are large gender differences in the health correlates of married versus single, and also after divorce and after widowhood.

      • Elizabeth

        So why wouldn’t you cover those differences? Isn’t it true that your assertion holds true for men, but falls apart for women? And is this not coincidence without correlation?

        I’m tired of reading one-dimensional “science” claiming single people are doomed. Can’t we do better than this? Or is confirmation bias that much more satisfying?

  25. Erica Badalassi

    It’s absolutely very useful information. please share such helpful news .Thank you for sharing.

  26. RP Rajarethinam

    There is a parallel article written by Harvard Business School titled ‘Financial advantages of being single’.