Last week Reuters reported that people who get married and stay married reported higher health ratings than other groups. This research, which surveyed more than 9,000 Americans aged 50 and older, was the first study to examine both marital transitions and marital status on a wide range of health dimensions.
While the study, like others before it, linked marriage to better health, it also found that individuals who lost a spouse through divorce or widowhood suffered a huge health toll, likely brought on by that high-stress period. The report adds that remarriage seems to lessen some of the health effects of divorce or widowhood, but that those in a lasting marriage still had better health.
“Think of your health as money in the bank,” said researcher and University of Chicago sociology professor Linda J. Waite. “Think of marriage as a mechanism for ‘saving’ or adding to health. Think of divorce as a period of very high expenditures.”
• Those who divorced or were widowed fared worse in terms of chronic health conditions than those who never wed. They experienced 20% more chronic conditions, such as heart disease, diabetes or cancer, and had 23% more problems climbing stairs or walking a block than their married counterparts.
• People who never married were found to have 12% more mobility limitations and 13% more depressive symptoms, but no difference in chronic conditions from the group who remained married.
• Those who remarried had 12% more chronic conditions and 19% more mobility limitations, but no more depressive symptoms than those who remained married.
A 2005 John Hopkins University Study found that extremely stressful events, including losing a spouse, can cause heart attack-like symptoms called stress cardiomyopathy or “broken heart” syndrome.
“Some health situations, like depression, seem to respond both quickly and strongly to changes in current conditions,” explains researcher Waite. “In contrast, conditions such as diabetes and heart disease develop slowly over a substantial period and show the impact of past experiences, which is why health is undermined by divorce or widowhood, even when a person remarries.”
If you or someone you love has lost a spouse through divorce or death, it is imperative to see a physician regularly and prioritize your health.
Researchers factored in participants’ age, race, sex and education level. They added that marital quality—which was not a part of the study—may also affect health (happy marriages positively and unhappy marriages negatively). The full study was published in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior.