Healthy marriage, healthy heart
By Michelle Roberts
Marriage can have a big effect on your health, from how long you live after heart surgery, to how much weight you put on.
There is lots of research to suggest that marriage can have a positive effect on health and survival. Married people tend to live longer than people who remain single, with the benefits being particularly pronounced for men.
But some evidence also appears to suggest that the marriage needs to be a happy one to confer such a benefit. Past work has shown that women in stressful marriages are prone to risk factors for heart disease, such as high blood pressure.
To find out more about the effects of marriage on the health and survival of heart patients, US investigators studied a group of 225 people who had recently undergone surgery to repair their diseased coronary arteries.
In total, 181 of the 225 people were married and these participants were asked to rate how happy they were in their relationship around the time of their surgery and a year after it. The researchers then tracked the outcomes of all of the patients over the next 15 years.
In a separate study, researchers looked at what happened to people’s weight in the year after marriage or divorce. Previous studies have shown that, on average, marriage or divorce makes little difference to weight. But in this study, researchers split the results by men and women, and by age groups, to see if particular groups of people were affected in different ways.
Overall, married people were 2.5 times more likely to be alive 15 years after heart surgery than those who were not married.
Of the married people, 61 in 100 were still alive, compared to 30 in 100 of the unmarried group. Furthermore, people who said they were in happy marriages (measured by a questionnaire about relationship satisfaction) saw even greater benefit. They were more than three times likely than their unmarried counterparts to be alive 15 years later.
In the weight study, researchers found that women who gained weight were more likely to do so in the year after getting married - while men were more likely to gain weight in the year after they divorced. The effect only became apparent in the over-30s. There was little effect on weight for people who married or divorced in their 20s.
The researchers in the heart study say that they tried to take account of other factors such as age, education, and tobacco use, which could potentially influence the results.
But it is difficult to take into account every conceivable factor that might affect the findings. Studies such this can only ever show a link or association and are never proof that one thing directly causes the other.
The weight study has not been published in a medical journal. Instead, the results were presented at a conference. That means we haven’t been able to look at the study in detail to test how reliable it is.
Being in a supportive relationship is beneficial in many ways and is something to be celebrated and cherished. But it is not the only factor to consider and people who are not in a relationship should not be alarmed in any way by these latest findings. It’s likely that many of the positive findings are because people in happy marriages may get more support with things like giving up smoking or eating a healthy diet.
But we can all aim to do these things, married or not, to help boost our overall health.
King K B, Reiss HT. Marriage and long-term survival after coronary artery bypass grafting. Health Psychology. Published online August 2011.
Qian Z, Tumin D. Marital Transitions and Weight Change. Presented at the American Sociological Association annual meeting 2011, Las Vegas, 22 August 2011.