Marriage is an affair of the heart – and it may even protect your ticker as well.
In a study of more than 3.5 million men and women, researchers from New York University’s Langone Medical Center found that married people have a significantly decreased risk of heart disease compared to people who are widowed, single or divorced.
Though previous research has produced conflicting results on the influence of marriage on heart health, Dr. Carlos Alviar, an NYU Langone cardiology fellow, said this study is the largest of its kind and provides the most comprehensive look at the connection between relationship status and cardiovascular disease.
“Most of those [previous] studies compared married to unmarried without making a distinction between types of marital statuses and mostly focused on one type of cardiovascular disease,” Alviar told FoxNews.com. “We had information that could compile all of this in a comprehensive way.”
For their study, Alviar and his colleagues analyzed rates of four types of cardiovascular disease in people between the ages of 21 and 99. This included coronary artery disease, which is the most common form of heart disease and occurs when arteries leading to the heart become clogged, often causing a heart attack.
The researchers also studied cerebrovascular disease, which affects circulation of blood flow to the brain, abdominal aortic aneurysms, a form of aneurysm occurring below the chest usually due to hardened arteries, and peripheral artery disease, in which fatty plaque buildup decreases the flow of blood from the heart to the legs.
The results strongly pointed towards the idea that marriage can have a protective effect for heart health; overall, married people had a 5 percent decreased risk of cardiovascular disease compared to unmarried people.
Though their researchers did not examine why marriage impacts heart health, Alviar and his colleagues suspect married people may have better support systems.
“People who have a spouse might be more compliant with medical appointments, screening processes, more compliant with medications and a healthy lifestyle as opposed to people who are by themselves,” Alviar said. “And being alone also produces not only psychological stress but physical stress, and that might be a risk factor. Studies show married people have lower levels of inflammation in the blood vessels and inflammation can lead to blockages.”
Among unmarried participants, specific marital status seemed to make a difference regarding risk factors for different types of cardiovascular disease as well.
“While people who were divorced had higher odds of any vascular disease, particularly aortic and cerebrovascular, people who were widowed had the highest odds for coronary and lower extremity disease,” Alviar noted.
Furthermore, the protective effects of marriage were even more pronounced among younger participants, indicating that it isn’t just age that makes widowed or divorced people more likely to develop heart disease. Young married participants under the age of 50 had a 12 percent lower risk of developing cardiovascular disease compared to young unmarried people.
To ensure that unmarried people weren’t simply at a greater risk due to higher levels of lifestyle risk factors, including smoking or obesity, the researchers controlled for these factors, and found marital status to be an independent risk factor for heart disease.
However, Alviar noted that people shouldn’t think they need to get married in order to protect their heart. Instead, patients should be aware that their relationship status may be a risk factor and take appropriate measures to ensure they are living a healthy lifestyle.
“So if someone has increased risk, I’m probably going to bring that up but to encourage them to continue having a healthier lifestyle,” Alviar said. “Based on research, you’re at higher risk, so let’s focus on things you can change like diet, exercise, smoking cessation. And that’s where the physician has to play a role and that’s were our data will be important, not only for physician but [for] patients.”
This research was presented Friday at the American College of Cardiology Meeting in Washington D.C.