Surprising Ways Marriage Can Affect Your Health

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Entering into a marriage is a big deal. And having and holding someone in sickness and in health might just be the most important vow people make on their wedding day — because marriage definitely has an effect on people's health.

"Humans are essentially social creatures," Dr. Alex Dimitriu, dual board-certified psychiatrist and sleep medicine specialist, explained to Health Digest. "And we do better when we 'belong,' or have a purpose." Dimitriu highlighted a study about "Blue Zones," or places where people live the longest. These are also "places where there are large families and a strong sense of community," he explained. They also happened to be married or in otherwise committed relationships. "Marriage is in many ways a most essential relationship, as this is the person we are most likely to be with the most, so it matters," Dimitriu contninued.

For the most part, the health benefits of married life are achieved in both good and bad marriages. "There is some evidence that even the companionship offered by an unhappy marriage may still outweigh the costs of solitude," said the psychiatrist. Key word: may. There are some health challenges created in bad marriages. The following ways demonstrate how marriage can affect your health. They might just have you running to — or from — the altar.

Marriage means you'll be more empathetic

One little-discussed benefit of joining in marriage is the development of deep empathy and care for our partner. "Knowing someone through the highs and lows of their life can allow us to take on a role of a support and confidante and truly be there for someone throughout their lives," Briony Leo, certified psychologist and head of coaching at HelloRelish, a relationship coaching company, told Health Digest. "Even if it can sometimes be hard to feel empathy for our partner if we're in the middle of conflict, a deep and respectful connection over your life can be the source of enormous comfort and growth."

Building empathy is so important, it might help change the world. "If we are to move in the direction of a more empathic society and a more compassionate world, it is clear that working to enhance our native capacities to empathize is critical to strengthening individual, community, national, and international bonds," Dr. Helen Riess, director of the Empathy Research and Training in Psychotherapy Research group in the Department of Psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital, asserted in a 2017 study on empathy.

For most, mental health improves with marriage

"There is no health without mental health." That's a key message of the World Health Organization. And according to their definition, mental health is, "a state of well-being in which the individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community."

As it turns out, marriage can help with all of those things. "Mental health is better when you're happily engaged with your significant other — with less incidence of social isolation, depression, loneliness," Dr. Kecia Gaither, director of Perinatal Services at NYC Health + Hospitals/Lincoln, told Health Digest. And although a 17-nation study showed married people are more likely to be happy, the mental health benefits of marriage go beyond happiness. A study out of Italy explained that being married is associated with a lower suicide rate compared with being unmarried.

Depending on the quality of your marriage, you'll feel more or less stress

A 2017 study out of Carnegie Mellon University discovered a likely mechanism for the differences in health between married and unmarried people: cortisol. Those who were married had lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol than those who were unmarried or previously married. "Married people may be less likely to experience stress (and the associated high cortisol) because their partners serve as a stress buffer, someone to talk to, and someone to help when stressful situations arise," Dr. Stacie Stephenson, chair of Functional Medicine for Cancer Treatment Centers of America and certified nutrition specialist, told Health Digest.

Of course, when the relationship is unhappy, stress levels and cortisol are likely to be higher. Dr. Stephenson explained that while "unhappy marriages still seem to benefit men ... they are worse for women than not being married at all." The solution might be encouraging good health habits in your partner and working on them together (such as working out or cooking healthy meals together). In doing so, you will both likely lower cortisol levels and be healthier, "not only because of your mutual good habits, but because of the camaraderie, support, and bonding you get from doing those activities together," Dr. Stephenson added.

Happily married people have stronger immune systems

With the World Health Organization's position that we'll likely experience more global health emergencies in the future, you may have been considering ways to boost your immunity. Surprisingly, having a partner can do just that.

"Marriage brings stability to life, which can drastically lower stress levels, and in turn, positively affect your immune system and your body's inflammatory response," Dr. Laura Louis, licensed psychologist, told Health Digest. However, a study published in American Psychologist shows that the stresses of a poor relationship are depressogenic (causing depression), and depression provides a central pathway to immune dysregulation, inflammation, and poor health.

This might be worse for women than for men, who perhaps carry more of the burden of a poor relationship. And splitting up might not make things much better for them, at least not at first. One study showed that women who had been separated one year or less had significantly poorer immune function than a socio-demographically matched married group.

Married people have better cancer outcomes

A study conducted by a team of researchers at the Cancer Prevention Institute of California and the University of California linked being married and cancer patient longevity, revealing that unmarried cancer patients had higher death rates than married patients. The researchers assert that the economic benefits of marriage, like access to health insurance and living in higher socioeconomic status neighborhoods, may play a role. At least one additional study seems to agree: survival is influenced by a spouse's resources.

However, there's likely more to it than just that. "When we feel bonded with another, we take better care of ourselves, physically and mentally, we bounce back quicker after a health crisis, or traumatic event," Deidra Ward, licensed clinical social worker and writer for Choosing Therapy, told Health Digest.

The support of marriage is likely a factor in understanding why married individuals are likely getting diagnosed earlier (married people are less likely to present with metastatic disease, which primarily is without cure). Those in healthy, committed relationships also take preventive health care more seriously. That means scheduling check-ups and routine diagnostics, which lead to early diagnoses and contributes to better cancer outcomes.

In a bad marriage, wounds can take longer to heal

People will forever debate whether time truly heals all wounds. But what's not up for debate is a happy marriage's role in wound healing. As it turns out, physical wounds heal faster in a happily married individual than in their unmarried counterparts.

In a 2010 study by Ohio State University, led by Dr. Jean-Philippe Gouin, individuals with the highest levels of oxytocin and vasopressin (natural hormones) showed the fastest wound healing. And, individuals who displayed more positive behaviors in a marital interaction task had higher oxytocin levels, while individuals who exhibited more negative behaviors had lower vasopressin levels.

"Social relationships can have many beneficial effects on health," Dr. Gouin explained at a conference (via Independent). "This research, funded by the US National Institutes of Health, shows that the hormone oxytocin may be an important link between the quality of our relationships and state of our health."

Married men's testosterone levels might drop

A typical man's testosterone level starts to gradually decline at around the age of 40, after peaking at age 17 and remaining high for more than two decades. So what does marriage have to do with that? "While marriage itself doesn't lead to any biological changes, three things we associate with marriage — love, long-term relationships, and kids — do," Simone Collins, co-author of the book, The Pragmatist's Guide to Relationships, told Health Digest. "All three of these things lead to a dramatic decline in testosterone levels in men. "

That lowering level of testosterone can cause men to lose motivation, experience a drop in sex drive, and even change physiologically. "The most dramatic of these physiological changes involves a significant decrease in muscle mass, which leads to more accumulation of fat, as muscle burns more calories in general," Collins explained. "The body deregulates testosterone in scenarios such as this as it no longer sees higher levels of testosterone as being worth the negative health effects (which are otherwise worth braving to secure a mate)."

Being married lowers your risk for cardiovascular disease

A 2018 systematic review and meta-analysis of previously conducted research showed that compared to married participants, being unmarried (never married, divorced, or widowed) was associated with increased odds of cardiovascular disease, coronary heart disease, and stroke incidence and mortality. The increased risk is significant; unmarried people have a 42 percent higher risk of developing cardiovascular disease, divorcees have a 35 percent higher risk or heart disease, and widows a 16 percent higher risk of stroke (via Time).

So why is getting and staying married better for your heart? For one, married people tend to have lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol. And high levels of cortisol have been linked to an increase in blood cholesterol, triglycerides, blood sugar, and blood pressure — all risk factors for heart disease. Aside from the physiology, marriage offers social support. And, married people have healthier lifestyles; they tend to eat better, exercise more, and take fewer risks.

Unmarried people face greater odds of developing dementia

Dementia affects approximately 50 million people worldwide (via World Health Organization). Those who have it experience memory loss and a decline in thinking skills and other cognitive abilities. Interestingly, unmarried people are at a greater risk of developing this syndrome. A 2019 study published in The Journals of Gerontology found that "all unmarried groups, including the cohabiting, divorced/separated, widowed, and never married, had significantly higher odds of developing dementia over the study period than their married counterparts."

Other research conducted on cognition lists social engagement as a risk factor, pointing to marriage as providing the social construct that is helpful to staving off dementia. "Married people find their social network through their spouse," Linda Waite, a professor of urban sociology at the University of Chicago, told WebMD. "Being married increases social integration, which promotes cognitive health."

This illuminates one possible reason that divorced individuals have the highest risk of dementia. Divorce often brings a change in one's social life and severing of other known/familiar relationships.

Can marriage increase your life expectancy?

"Marriage has been shown to improve lifespan — perhaps more for men than women," Dr. Alex Dimitriu, dual board-certified psychiatrist and sleep medicine specialist, explained to Health Digest. And, a study in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health showed that those who have never been married might live the shortest lives. The so-called "marriage benefit" — the phenomenon of unmarried middle-aged men in most developed countries being twice as likely to die than their married counterparts — is compelling.

So why do happily married men live healthier lives? They eat better, get more rest, have stronger immune systems, and fare better with illnesses like heart disease and cancer that impact male mortality, according to Harvard Men's Health Watch. But women? According to The New York Times, women "bear the brunt of marriage's negative health consequences," at least in troubled relationships. Interestingly, marrying a younger man can also shorten a woman's life, according to another study (via The Guardian). Nevertheless, women do have a greater life expectancy than men overall.

If married, your lungs might function better

Your lungs fully mature at around age 25 (via American Lung Association). By the time you turn 35, lung functioning starts to decline. So people should do whatever they can to keep their lungs functioning at a healthy level, right on up to old age. Not smoking helps. So does avoiding air pollution. Getting regular exercise, watching our weight. No surprises there, right?

Well, it might surprise you that one of the best things you can do to help your lungs over the long haul is to get married. According to a 2014 study out of Carnegie Mellon University, marriage offers the strongest positive connection to lung function. However, here's some encouraging information for those of you who are and hope to stay single: Overall social integration — the total number of social relationships one has in the current lives — also plays a role in healthy lung functioning as we age. A greater numbers of roles was associated with better lung function even in those who were not married.

Married people share a risk of diabetes

There are many health benefits of marriage — and staving off diabetes might be one of them. Studies have shown that married patients are less likely to be overweight, which raises your risk for type 2 diabetes. More surprising, however, is the fact that the risk of type 2 diabetes is likely to be shared by married individuals.

A 2018 study by the University of Copenhagen shows a connection between the BMI of one spouse and the other's risk of being diagnosed with the disease. If you consider how diet and exercise play a role in the development of the disease, and the fact that meals and exercise habits are often shared by married people, this does make sense. However, the study also showed that if a wife had a higher BMI, her husband's risk of developing type 2 diabetes is 21 percent higher that someone whose wife has a healthy BMI (regardless of his own BMI). And the reverse was not the case. This is likely based on the fact that women more often make meal-related decisions, like grocery shopping and cooking, and are a greater influence over the risk for their partner.

Married people influence each other's moods

Think you can't catch a mood as easily as you can catch a cold? Think again. Emotion contagion is a thing. Studies have shown that people are susceptible to the moods of others by being with them and picking up on their emotions, their body language, and facial expressions. This kind of emotional mimicry is most common with those you are closest to and spend the most time with. For married people, this means that if your spouse is happy, you might feel happy. But if they are depressed, you might be depressed. And if they are stressed, well, you might feel stressed, too.

Some gender differences do occur, and might be tied to levels of empathy. When married couples age, and chronic illness and suffering becomes problematic, emotional contagion is distressing, particularly for women. One study showed that wives experienced more emotional contagion on days they perceived their spouse was suffering — though men did not.

Marriage lowers the risk of STDs

Does it go without saying that monogamy is the best way to prevent or lower your risk of contracting a sexually transmitted disease? Well, to be fair, abstinence or celibacy are the best ways. But being in a monogamous relationship is a close second (via Verywell Health). In fact, research has shown that monogamous relationships might have stemmed from a desire to avoid sexually transmitted infection. The social norm, as we know it today, might have found it's origins in the days of agricultural societies.

Having sex with multiple partners ups your risk factor, for sure. So unless you are in an open marriage, taking those vows and remaining monogamous will keep you and your partner free from STDs and (hopefully) enjoying a healthy sex life for the entirety of your relationship. And if you are planning on getting married — or deciding to take your current relationship to a sexual level — you should talk about each other's sexual histories and risk factors for contracting STDs to protect yourself, and the person you love, from getting one.