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How does being married affect our health?

Whether you have a happy marriage might affect your general health, a study suggests. In fact, being in a less-than-happy marriage, or having marriage problems, could be linked with a decline in health.

BMJ Group News

What do we know already?

ethnic happy young couple

There have been studies looking at whether having marital problems puts a person at high risk of physical health problems. It has been suggested, for example, that being in an unhappy marriage might cause people to become stressed or depressed - both of which can affect physical health; and that people who are unhappy are more likely to take risks with their health, such as drinking too much alcohol or not eating properly. But it’s hard to design a reliable study that can show if there’s a link.

In this study, researchers surveyed 1,700 people who got married between the ages of 18 and 55 and stayed married for at least 20 years. The participants were all interviewed over the telephone, six times over a period of 20 years.

The survey asked people to rate how happy they were in their marriage, with responses ranging from 1 (meaning very happy) to 3 (not happy). They were asked about the negative aspects or relationship problems within their marriage, such as their partners’ irritating habits, their moods, and how they handled money. Lastly, the participants were asked to rate their general health as excellent, good, fair, or poor.

The researchers then looked for any link between how happy people were in their marriages and their level of general health.

What does the new study say?

The results of the study were complex, not clear cut. But, in general, people with fewer marital problems were more likely to be in better health during the study. The opposite was also true, so that people in less-happy marriages were less likely to be in good health.

How reliable is the research?

Any study in a subject as general as this can only ever suggest a link between two things; it certainly can’t prove cause and effect. The researchers took account of some things that could have affected the results, such as age, gender, race, and education. But there are so many things that can affect people’s health that it’s unlikely the researchers would have been aware of and able to account for them all. Whether people are generally happy and how they are affected by marital problems are difficult to measure and we can’t be sure how reliable the questionnaires were, or how honest people were in their responses.

What does this mean for me?

Although the basic results of this study are interesting, there are many reasons not to read too much into them. Among all the things that can affect a person’s health over 20 years, it’s difficult to isolate one and say that it causes poor health - especially if it’s something as general and hard to define as ‘happiness’. But we know that things such as stress, anxiety, and depression can affect people’s physical health. If you are worried that these things may be affecting your health - whether because of marriage or any other reason - you may want to talk to your doctor.

Published on July 05, 2013

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