If you find the prospect of “tying the knot” stressful, you may want to consider very real evidence that married or partnered men are healthier and live longer than their single counterparts.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, men in committed relationships experience less stress, reducing the chances of chronic disease and sudden illness. Health and marriage and the benefits for men are undoubtedly closely related.

The health benefits of marriage seem to come from lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol, but it’s a combination of factors that makes walking down the aisle toward a committed relationship healthier than going it alone. Certainly, there are advantages to maintaining a perpetual string of one-night stands, but the concept of health and marriage may trump the idea for some men.

The complex link between health and marriage

A 1996 Rand Study, titled Marital Status and Mortality: The Role of Health, states men in their 50s, 60s and 70s have lower mortality rates compared to never-married, divorced or widowed men, but the reasons are complex.

One suggestion is that marriage encourages healthy behaviors that include not smoking, avoidance of excessive alcohol intake, better nutrition, and care in times of illness. Men who are married are less likely to engage in risky behaviors like substance abuse or drinking and driving. Parenting within a marriage further promotes healthy behavior.

Stress hormones lower for married men

Researchers from the University of Chicago found that marriages and romantic commitments lower stress hormones.

Dario Maestripieri, Professor in Comparative Human Development at the University of Chicago, and lead author of Between- and Within-sex Variations in Hormonal Responses to Psychological Stress in a Large Sample of College Students, says that "although marriage can be pretty stressful, it should make it easier for people to handle other stressors in their lives. What we found is that marriage has a dampening effect on cortisol responses to psychological stress, and that is very new."

The study was conducted on 500 masters degree students who were given a series of stressful computer games. Among the group, 40 percent of the men and 53 percent of the women were married or in a relationship. The researchers collected saliva samples to measure cortisol and testosterone levels, before and after the games.

The surprising finding at the start of the study was that single men and women had higher levels of the stress hormone than married participants. Men in a committed relationship had lower testosterone levels - findings that the scientists say happens in primates and birds when males engage in fatherly behavior. Single students in the study had higher testosterone levels that “can potentially influence many aspects of an individual’s response to environmental challenges including tendency to take risks, psychomotor function and coordination, and cognitive performance.”


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Why stress matters

Stress does matter when it comes to health and longevity. The finding that married men have lower cortisol levels than single males is important when it comes to disease prevention. A 2010 study shows that cortisol accelerates the formation of arterial plaque that leads to atherosclerosis and heart disease.

Stress is linked to a wide array of health problems because it promotes inflammation that can trigger autoimmune disease, negatively impact cardiovascular health and promote cancer development. Researchers know that chronic inflammation damages DNA, promoting disease at a cellular level.

Findings published in the September 2010 issue of the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism found a five-fold increase in the chances of dying from heart disease when cortisol levels are chronically elevated.

The study, conducted on individuals over age 65, “adds evidence to the belief that cortisol can be damaging to the cardiovascular system” according to study author Nicole Vogelzangs, PhD, of VU University Medical Center in The Netherlands.

Cortisol is an important regulator of homeostasis in the body. The hormone is secreted by the adrenal glands and controls blood pressure, contributes to weight management, influences insulin release, and facilitates metabolism of carbohydrates. Too much cortisol in the bloodstream promotes distribution of fat in the abdomen that increases with risk of metabolic syndrome, stroke and heart disease.

Stress also lowers immunity, making us more susceptible to chronic fatigue syndrome, infection and cancer. A strong social support system that comes from being happily partnered provides a boost to the immune system.

More health perks for married and partnered men

Lower cortisol levels make men more attractive to women. The findings come from Dr. Fhionna Moore, a psychology lecturer at Abertay University. "We analyzed different levels and combinations of cortisol and testosterone and found a strong link between low cortisol levels, which is present when someone has low stress levels, and being highly attractive to women."

Marriage could improve feelings of self-worth and body image, reducing anxiety and depression.
Happily married men have lower blood pressure readings. Hypertension is a major contributor to heart disease and stroke. Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a Brigham Young University professor, found that a happy marriage can keep blood pressure lower. She suggests the combination of sharing good news and emotional support that comes from a committed relationship boosts body functioning.

Marriage and better health linked since 1858

As early as 1858, William Farr, a British epidemiologist, identified the risk of dying among unmarried men. Farr studied records of medical statistics to find the link.

Current studies support the role of marriage as a contributor to better health - but it’s also important to note that the relationship dynamic is what matters the most.

Fun and friendship that comes from a happy relationship can undoubtedly promote a longer and healthier life. Men with lower stress hormones are healthier, live longer and they look better too, perhaps explaining the mysterious attraction of some women to married men.