Life-Long Wedlock Keeps Doctor Away

What can be done to lower risks of diabetes, cancer, heart attack, and stroke, the leading causes of death and disability in the United States? Health professionals are quick to hound Americans about eating right and exercising regularly. Yet perhaps they should also be calling attention to the conclusions of a study by scholars at the University of North Carolina and Princeton that found that the longer men and women stayed married—and married to the same spouse—the lower risks they face of developing these chronic conditions.

Armed with fifty years of age-specific marriage and health data representing 9,000 men and women born between 1931 and 1941 who participated in the biannual waves of the Health and Retirement Survey between 1992 and 2000, Matthew Dupre and Sarah Meadows calculate what they call the hazard rate (the instantaneous probability of an illness or health event occurring at a certain age, given it has not already occurred) by gender of various life trajectories. Those trajectories include men and women who have never married, those who are married, and those who have experienced up to three cumulative transitions such as divorce, widowhood, and remarriage.

The researchers found that marriage duration correlates with lower rates of diabetes, cancer, heart attack, and stroke. The preventative effects of marriage duration at a certain age were greater for men than for women, even as the effects were statistically significant for both genders. For example, a 50-year-old male who has been married ten years faces a hazard rate of .64; if he has been married twenty years, the hazard rate is significantly lower (.41). For a 50-year-old female who has been married ten years, the hazard rate is .76; if she has been married twenty years, the rate is .58, which the researchers call a “sizable” reduction.

On the other hand, divorce transitions were found to increase significantly the likelihood of disease for both men and women. For every divorce, the researchers found that women are 1.22 times more likely to exhibit disease onset; for men, 1.10 times. Reflecting that marriage yields greater health benefits to men, widowhood was found to be a significant predictor of disease for men but not for women. Every transition to widowhood increased men’s hazard rates by 44 percent.

Some risks associated with divorce (for both genders)—but not the risks of widowhood for men—were mediated by marriage duration and were found to diminish over time. Yet there is no getting around what the researchers conclude: “As health risks increase with age, women with long marriage duration(s) are more likely to delay the onset of disease” and “men who accumulate more years in marriage have the lowest risk of developing a disease condition.”

(Matthew E. Dupre and Sarah O. Meadows, “Disaggregating the Effects of Marital Trajectories on Health,” Journal of Family Issues 28 [May 2007]: 623–52.)