Married people don’t really live longer; it just seems longer. So goes the old joke. But study after study has shown that the relationship between marriage and longevity is not just a punchline. People who are married—or otherwise in a long-term, committed relationship—tend to live significantly longer than their single counterparts.
Recently, researchers from Duke University analyzed data on nearly 5,000 people from a large heart disease study. They found that having a partner during middle age protects against premature death: Those who never married were more than twice as likely to die early than those who had been in a stable marriage throughout their adult life. So were people who had been in a relationship but lost their partner to divorce or death by midlife—suggesting that not just having been married, but having that relationship last through middle age was necessary to get the protective benefit.
Married people don’t just live longer lives—they appear to enjoy better physical and mental health. Across an enormous range of health conditions, from cancer to pneumonia, studies have shown that people who are happily married or living with a partner have better health outcomes than either long-term singles or the formerly coupled.
What's behind "marriage protection?"
When you have someone else to think about, you might be more likely to wear a helmet when you ride your motorcycle or go downhill skiing. Your spouse may remind you to buckle your seat belt, get that mammogram or colonoscopy, or cut down on the burgers and fries. Or get you to the hospital faster if you’re having chest pain, as one Canadian study found.
And simply having a partner to talk to about the stresses of your day can make those stresses seem more manageable. Several studies have found that people in committed relationships bounce back from stressful situations more easily than singles.
Here's the catch, though. It’s not merely the fact of being married or coupled that provides the health benefits; it's the quality of your relationship.
Good vs. bad marriages and health
Just as a happy marriage can boost health, an unhappy one can have the opposite effect. Women in happy marriages, for example, appear to rebound much better from the stress of a busy day than women whose marriages are unhappy. In contrast, women with the highest levels of marital stress are nearly three times as likely to have a second heart attack or need major cardiac surgery as those with peaceful partnerships. Work stress, the same study found, does not wreak the same havoc on the heart as marital discord.
People with stressful marriages also appear to have a higher risk of developing coronary artery disease. And among married people with a history of depression, higher levels of hostility in the marriage were correlated with poorer metabolism after a high-fat meal, according to a study published in Psychoneuroendocrinology. Those metabolic changes could in turn raise the risk of obesity, metabolic syndrome, and cardiovascular disease.
Scientists Ronald Glaser and Jan Kiecolt-Glaser, who identified that last correlation, are a married couple themselves and have been studying marital discord and harmony, and their effects on health, for decades. They’ve found that the chronic stress of an unhappy marriage can lead to a weakened immune system—something they demonstrated with an experiment involving wound healing.
The Glasers persuaded a group of 42 couples, ranging in age from 22 to 77 and who had been married for about 12 years on average, to participate in two discussions each. The first one would be a supportive talk about things that tended to bring out connection between the partners, while the second discussion would be about conflict-laden topics that the partners would try to resolve. Before the conversations, the researchers would use a small suction device to inflict minor blisters on each person’s forearm.
The results were interesting: blisters healed more slowly after the conflict-heavy discussions than the more peaceful ones. Couples whose communication was rated by observers as being generally more hostile had slower healing overall than those who were rated as more harmonious.
In other words, you may literally heal better when you are getting along well with your partner. That message seems to sum up the ever-growing body of literature about marriage, relationships, and health: being with a partner, in and of itself, isn’t a magic medicine. But taking care of that partnership, communicating well, and being kind to each other may be a potent remedy for many things that ail you.