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27 March 2006
Marriage Can Make You Sick
by George Atkinson

Being in an unhappy relationship can not only cause mental stress, it can also accelerate the normal decline in physical health that occurs as you age. And just to make matters worse, as men age, they become increasingly vulnerable to marital stress; creating a feedback cycle which amplifies the risk of serious illness. These findings come from a new study just published in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior by researchers at the University of Texas (UT) and Ohio State University.

The researchers said that while previous studies had shown that married men exhibit better health than the unmarried, it was not true that any marriage is better than no marriage at all when it comes to health. "Unhappily married individuals have yet another reason to identify marital difficulties and seek to improve marital quality," said UT's Debra Umberson, the study's lead researcher. "Their very health may depend on it."

The study was based on data from a survey that asked about positive and negative aspects of marital quality and physical health. As well as questions about marital satisfaction, the participants answered questions on life course and variables such as gender, race and education.

Some of the findings include:

  • The absence of marital negativity (a happy marriage) may benefit health, but it seems this beneficial effect is only apparent at older ages (after age 70).
  • Marital negativity may be detrimental to health at older ages (after age 70).
  • There was no evidence of gender differences on the effects of marital quality on health at any age, so both men and women were at equal risk of poor health outcomes.
  • Negative marital experiences are more important to the health outcomes of older individuals than to younger ones.

In regard to the physiological processes behind the findings, the researchers hypothesize that stress induced by marital difficulties could impact already vulnerable immune systems. Additionally, they point out that as people age, they lose close friends and rely more on their spouse as a source of meaning in their lives, increasing the chance of marital friction. The researchers conclude by urging doctors to be aware of the potential effects that marital quality can have on health.

Based on material from the University of Texas - Austin




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