DENVER — Marriage may reduce health risks in women, new research finds, but men who get married too early may find their likelihood of chronic inflammation going up.
The study, presented here Saturday (Aug. 18) at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association, is preliminary, but gives researchers an in-depth view of the relationship between marriage and health, study researcher Michael McFarland, a Princeton University sociologist, told LiveScience. The study finds that for women, continuous marriage without divorce or widowhood is linked to fewer cardiovascular risk factors, such as high blood pressure.
The same did not hold true for men, with guys who married younger being more likely to have warning signs for chronic inflammation later in life, McFarland and his colleagues found. Inflammation is a crucial part of the healing process, but chronic inflammation can be harmful in itself.
"It's a turning point that influences the rest of their lives or at least a good portion of their lives," McFarland said of these men's early marriages.
Health and marriage
Much of the research on marriage and health has found that wedding bells improve health for guys but do little for women. Some of this may have to do with the fact that women tend to be more health-conscious than men, visiting the doctor more frequently and taking on the role of reminding their husbands to get medical care. For example, a study published in July 2011 in the Canadian Medical Association Journal found that married men got treatment for heart attacks faster than their single counterparts, a difference not seen between married and single ladies.
But most marriage and health studies have either relied on self-reports of health — which can be unreliable, McFarland said — or general records of mortality, which tell researchers little about why marriage, health and death might be linked. [10 Easy Paths to Self Destruction]
So McFarland and his colleagues turned to biological risk factors, or signs that someone might be facing health problems down the road. Using data from the National Social Health and Aging Project, the researchers traced the marital histories and health risk factors of 528 women and 534 men ages 57 to 75.
To measure health risk, the researchers looked at cardiovascular risk factors such as blood pressure, resting heart rate and waist circumference. They also examined metabolic risk factors that put people at risk for Type II diabetes. Finally, they included a measurement of C-reactive protein, which is found in the blood and indicates inflammation.
Wedding bells and doctor bills
For women, the researchers found, the longer the marriage, the fewer cardiovascular risk factors. The effect was significant but modest, McFarland said, with every 10 years of continuous marriage associated with a 13 percent decrease in cardiovascular risk.
But when marriage is disrupted, it can be hard on the health. Women who were continuously married had a 40 percent lower count of metabolic risk factors than women who experienced two episodes or divorce or widowhood, the researchers found.
Earlier work on divorce has found that breaking up is linked to bad health. One 2009 study found 20 percent more chronic health problems in divorced people than the currently married.
Unexpectedly, McFarland and his colleagues saw no protective effect of marriage in men, in contradiction to previous research. However, McFarland said, the study was on older adults, and men have shorter life expectancies than women. It's possible that the least healthy men in the cohort had already died and thus weren't included in the study, skewing the results.
The findings did reveal that very early marriage may not be a good deal for guys. A five-year increase in age at first marriage decreased the odds of chronic inflammation by 30 percent, McFarland said. The findings aren't good cause for cold feet, though — the trend was driven by very young marriages, McFarland said, the difference between getting wed at 17 versus, say, 23.
"If you get married at 17, maybe you get lower educational attainment, which we know is associate with higher biological risk," McFarland said.
McFarland stressed that this biological look at the sociology of marriage is in its early stages, and there are many complicating factors to tease out. For example, he said, because men die earlier than women, they are in short supply on the senior citizen marriage market. That means that even an unhealthy guy is likely able to snag a wife, while unhealthy older women have worse odds. [6 Scientific Tips for a Successful Marriage]
Not only does this skewed gender ratio influence who gets married, it could put women into more caretaking roles, McFarland said. That, in turn, could influence their health.
"So if healthy women are marrying somewhat unhealthy men, do they get into a caretaking role?" he said. "We know in past literature that chronic caretaking, especially among older adults, has some negative health outcomes."
The study "does a really interesting job of just showing us the nuances of risk among men and women across age," said Bridget Goosby, a University of Nebraska, Lincoln sociologist who was not involved in the research. Speaking to a group of sociologists at the annual meeting, Goosby encouraged more research into the biology of social relationships.
"We're only just scratching the surface of how biology and social context interact with one another to create these trajectories of health," she said.
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Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.