The latest is a new study from Carnegie Mellon University, which found that married people have lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol than non-married and previously married people. The findings, which are slated for publication in the April issue of the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology, suggest that marriage may improve overall health by acting as a defense against psychological stress.
“It’s exciting to discover a physiological pathway that may explain how relationships influence health and disease,” Brian Chin, a Ph.D. student at the university and study co-author, said in a statement.
For the study, the researchers took saliva samples from 572 healthy adult volunteers between the ages of 21 and 55, who were either single, married or previously married. Multiple samples were taken over a 24-hour period during three non-consecutive days.
The results showed that married people had lower cortisol levels overall than single or divorced people, and also that they had faster cortisol declines ― a hormonal pattern that’s been associated with improved health outcomes ― over the course of the day.
It’s well-established that people with lower cortisol levels tend to be healthier. High cortisol levels promote inflammation, which can in turn elevate the risk of a host of health problems, including heart disease, autoimmune conditions and depression.
These and other findings suggest that there’s some link between marriage, good health and psychological well-being. The new results seem to reflect the general health and well-being benefits of social support ― but does it mean that there are some unique benefits to the institution of marriage in particular?
Not necessarily, and the findings should be taken with a few caveats. For one, the study only demonstrates correlation ― not causality. It’s possible that better health among married people simply reflects the fact that healthier people are more likely to get married in the first place. What’s more, the findings also don’t take into account the differences between married couples and long-term, cohabitating couples who are unmarried.
While a happy marriage is likely to support overall health, let’s not forget that many marriages are not this way. Marital dischord is hugely common, and it’s associated with poorer health. A 2010 study, also published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology, found that marital stress can contribute to poor immune function and high blood pressure ― leading the study’s authors to suggest that marital strife might be even worse for your health than workplace stress. Another study found that the health impacts of marital stress are comparable to those of more traditional risk factors like smoking and a sedentary lifestyle.
The bottom line? Healthy marriages are good for you, but the blanket statement that married people are healthier ― as is so often presented in the media ― is simply a fiction. The mere fact of being married isn’t going to grant you a stress-free life and glowing health. A closer look at the data suggests that the quality of your relationship ― whether you’re married or not ― is what really matters.