The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.

-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

Healthily Wed

Bryce J. Christensen and Robert W. Patterson

When a marriage endures, both husband and wife enjoy decided health advantages over peers who never marry or who lose a spouse through divorce or death. The long-term effects of an enduring marriage stand out clearly in a study by researchers at Johns Hopkins and the University of Chicago.

Analyzing health data collected from a nationally representative sample of men and women more than 50 years of age, the researchers limn a clear pattern: “Those who have married once and remained married are consistently, strongly, and broadly advantaged.” “On all the dimensions we examined,” the researchers note, “currently married persons who have never been divorced or widowed show better health than currently married persons who have ever experienced a marital loss.”

In sharp contrast, the Johns Hopkins and Chicago scholars report that “the previously married have significantly worse health than the currently married on all measures we examine. . . . They rate their health less favorably and they show levels of depressive symptoms about one-fifth of a point higher on a four-point scale.” Statistical analysis establishes that all of the health differences separating the currently married from the previously married are “significant at the p<.001 level.” The analysts report that “few gender differences” surfaced in their analysis, with both men and women benefiting from lasting marriage and both men and women suffering from marital disruption.

Remarriage seems to mitigate the effects of divorce—but only partly: “among the currently married, those who have ever been divorced show worse health on all dimensions” than do those who are still in a first marriage. To be sure, the shadow of divorce looks different when the concern is physical health than it is when the focus is psychological well-being: divorce apparently affects chronic physical illnesses and mobility limitations more persistently than it does depression, which appears “more sensitive to current marital status” than to a history of divorce.

Nor are those who have lost a spouse through divorce or death the only ones disadvantaged compared to those who have made a lasting marital union. The study establishes that those who have never wed also suffer from distinctive health disadvantages. Compared to married peers, “never-married respondents [in this study] report significantly more mobility limitations, significantly worse self-rated health, and significantly more depressive symptoms” (p<.01 for mobility limitations; p<.001 for self-rated health and depressive symptoms).

The researchers interpret their findings as “strong support” for the belief that “the short-term effects of marital status and marital transitions on health extend to the long term and accumulate over the life course.”

In light of the clear health-protective effects of wedlock, policymakers serious about containing skyrocketing health-care costs may want to start looking at marriage rates that have been in free fall for more than thirty years and at a national divorce rate that soared in the 1960s and 1970s and has remained stubbornly high ever since.

(Mary Elizabeth Hughes and Linda J. Waite, “Marital Biography and Health at Mid-Life,” Journal of Health and Social Behavior 50 [September 2009]: 344–58.)