A Happy Marriage Leads To Better Health, Study Finds

02/14/2013 10:56 am ET | Updated Feb 20, 2013

Happily married couples are more likely to enjoy better mental and physical health than their not-so-happy friends, a new study shows. And those in good marriages are more likely to rate their health as better as they grow older, meaning aging adults in poor physical health could benefit in particular from improvements in their marriages.

Christine Proulx, assistant professor in the University of Missouri Department of Human Development and Family Studies, examined the long-term relationship between self-rated health and marital quality, and found that -- no matter what stage of marriage -- positive or negative relationships impact a person's health.

She said that spouses should be aware that how they treat each other and how happy they are in their marriages play a role in both partners' health, meaning they should consider the maintenance of their personal relationship as key to feeling good both mentally and physically. Happily married people are also found to enjoy better health than those who are unhappy in their marriages.

"We often think about the aging process as something we can treat medically with a pill or more exercise, but working on your marriage also might benefit your health as you age," Proulx said in a press release. "Engaging with your spouse is not going to cure cancer, but building stronger relationships can improve both people's spirits and well-being and lower their stress."

Proulx suggests that health professionals factor in patients' personal relationships when designing health promotion programs or treatment plans.

"Physicians should recognize that the strength of patients' marriages might affect their health," she said. "I suspect we'd have higher rates of adherence to treatment plans for chronic illnesses if medical professionals placed more of an emphasis on incorporating families and spouses in patients' care. If spouses understand their partners' disease and how to treat it at home, and the couple has a strong marriage, both people's health could improve."

Proulx analyzed data from 707 continuously married adults who participated in the Marital Instability Over the Life Course panel study, a 20-year, nationwide research project launched in 1980 with funding from the Social Security Administration's Office of Research and Statistics and the National Institute on Aging.

Most study participants were white, had more than a high school education and earned more than $55,000 in annual family income in 2000. Because of these characteristics, Proulx says the participants probably had some protection against marital and health challenges more commonly faced by people of different ethnicities or with less education or income.

The new study is hardly the first to suggest a link between marriage and better health. A large body of research links marriage with a lower risk of developing cancer, having a heart attack and being diagnosed with dementia and various diseases.

There is good news for singles too. Research shows that unmarried people with active lifestyles enjoy their own health benefits.

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CORRECTION: The original story had a headline that incorrectly said married people were healthier than single people.

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