To stay healthy, stay married

U. CHICAGO (US)—The end of a marriage, whether through divorce or death, has a lingering impact on health, even if a person remarries, a new study finds.

“Among the currently married, those who have ever been divorced show worse health on all dimensions,” says study coauthor Linda Waite, the Lucy Flower professor in sociology and director of the Center on Aging at the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago. “Both the divorced and widowed who do not remarry show worse health on all dimensions.”

Waite conducted  the study with Mary Elizabeth Hughes, assistant professor at Johns Hopkins’ Bloomberg School of Public Health. Although a number of studies have looked at the connection between health and marriage, their study is the first to examine both marital transitions and marital status on a wide range of health dimensions. The findings will be published in the September issue of the Journal of Health and Social Behavior.

Research has shown that people enter adulthood with a particular “stock” of health. “Each person’s experience of marital gain and loss affect this stock of health,” Waite says. “For example, the transition to marriage tends to bring an immediate health benefit, in that it improves health behaviors for men and financial well-being for women.”

In contrast, divorce or widowhood undermines health because incomes drop and stress develops over issues such as shared child care.

The study found that people who are divorced or widowed have 20 percent more chronic health conditions, including heart disease, diabetes, and cancer than married people and 23 percent more mobility limitations, like climbing stairs or walking around the block.

People who remarried have 12 percent more chronic conditions and 19 percent more mobility limitations, but no more depressive symptoms than those who are continuously married.

The effects of marriage, divorce, and remarriage on health are based on the ways in which various illnesses develop and heal, Waite says.

“Some health situations, like depression, seem to respond both quickly and strongly to changes in current conditions,” she explains. “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.”

The research was supported with a grant from the National Institute on Aging.

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