People who get married and stay married may enjoy better health than the perpetually single, but losing a spouse could take a significant health toll, a new study suggests.
Historically, studies have found that married people as a group tend to be in better health than singles — though recent research suggests the health advantage of marriage may be fading.
In the new study, researchers found that middle-aged and older Americans who were currently married tended to give higher ratings to their health than their never-married counterparts. They also reported fewer depression symptoms and limits on their mobility.
On the other hand, divorced or widowed adults fared worse than the never married on certain health measures — including the number of chronic health conditions reported. "Previously married people experience, on average, 20 percent more conditions and 23 percent more limitations," the researchers write in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior.
Remarriage seemed to lessen some of the health effects of divorce or widowhood. However, remarried men and women were still in generally poorer health than those in a lasting marriage.
"We argue that losing a marriage through divorce or widowhood is extremely stressful and that a high-stress period takes a toll on health," researcher Linda J. Waite, a professor of sociology at the University of Chicago, said in a written statement.
"Think of health as money in the bank," she added. "Think of a marriage as a mechanism for 'saving' or adding to health. Think of divorce as a period of very high expenditures."
The findings are based on data from more than 9,100 Americans age 50 and older who took part in a national health survey in 1992.
Overall, 55 percent had been continuously married, 4 percent had never married, and the rest had been divorced or widowed at least once.
Marital history was linked to overall health even when Waite and colleague Mary Elizabeth Hughes factored in participants' age, race, sex and education.
The findings do not necessarily mean that simply staying married is a health boon, however.
A shortcoming of the study, the researchers note, is that it lacked information on marital quality. Past studies have found that people who remain in an unhappy marriage may have increased risks of health problems like high blood pressure, depression and heart disease.
SOURCE: Journal of Health and Social Behavior, June 2009.