There is research that married people are more likely to survive cancer, less likely to suffer a stroke or heart attack, less likely to develop depression and other mental illnesses, and the list goes on.
The health advantage of marriage seems small but significant, roughly equivalent to that of a healthier diet or regular exercise. According to one study, compared to single people, married people are 14 per cent more likely to survive a heart attack, and ready to be discharged from hospital two days earlier.
Interestingly, men seem to benefit from marriage more than women, perhaps because married women tend to be in a subordinate position, or tend to be more affected by marital conflict. In at least one study, single women fared almost as well as their wedded counterparts. Also, older couples seem to benefit considerably more from marriage than younger ones.
The health advantage of marriage is generally ascribed to better social support. A spouse is likely to encourage healthier habits and provide emotional and practical support at times of need. She or he is likely to be in the vicinity in the event of an emergency, if only to call an ambulance. Married people are also more likely to have health insurance, and less likely to engage in risky behaviours such as substance misuse or dangerous driving. And, of course, they enjoy a great deal of social approval and recognition.
Rather than marriage promoting health, it may be that health promotes marriage, that is, that people with better health and more resources are more likely to get or remain married. But it appears that the health advantage of marriage persists even after controlling for such factors.
Of course, one need not be married to enjoy the benefits of companionship. Non-marital cohabitation appears to confer a similar health advantage. Single people may depend on relatives, friends, and colleagues, while at the same time having fun with their dates. They may also own a dog, cat, or other pet. Pet ownership has been associated with some of the same benefits as marriage, including better mental and cardiovascular health—and one might wonder which of marriage or pet ownership is of greater benefit.
Both marriage and pet ownership have been found to lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which can impair immune function. Cuddling, or even just interacting, with a spouse or pooch releases the ‘love hormone’ oxytocin, which promotes feelings of calm and closeness.
The feeling of loneliness, in contrast, is both unpleasant and damaging. At the same time, people in unhappy marriages may feel more stressed and unsupported than most single people, to say nothing of those married people going through the trauma of a divorce. Divorce is one of the most stressful of all life events. Beyond middle age, divorced people, even if they have remarried, are actually in worse health than people who have never married.
But all these are just averages and statistics, and there may be much more to them than meets the eye. Everyone is different, and all marriages are different. Matrimony may be a great boon if you are the marrying type, and if you can manage to remain happily married. But the Dalai Lama never married, and he’s is pretty rude health.
Neel Burton is author of For Better For Worse: Should I Get Married?, Heaven and Hell: The Psychology of the Emotions, and other books.
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