[Article revised on 1 April 2020.]
According to various studies, 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 disorders, 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.
Curiously, 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 much more from marriage than younger ones. So if you’re an old man, best to be married!
The health advantage of marriage is often ascribed to better social support. A spouse is likely to encourage healthier habits and provide emotional and practical support at times of need. In the event of an emergency such as a heart attack or stroke, she or he is likely to be in the vicinity, if only to call an ambulance. Statistically, married people are also more likely to have health insurance, and less likely to engage in high risk behaviours such as substance misuse and 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 healthier people with more resources are more likely to get and remain married. But it appears that the health advantage of marriage remains 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.
People 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. Charles Darwin (d. 1882) once listed the pros and cons of marriage, and under the pros wrote: ‘better than a dog anyhow’. But he did, in the end, marry—his first cousin, with whom he had ten children.
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. Lonely people eat and drink more, and exercise and sleep less. They are at higher risk of developing psychological problems such as alcoholism, depression, and psychosis, and physical problems such as infection, cancer, and cardiovascular disease.
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 separation. 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 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 are able to remain happily married. But the Dalai Lama never married and is in rude health.
Neel Burton is author of For Better For Worse and other books.
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