Scientists have known for years that married people who develop cancer tend to live longer than their unmarried counterparts. Conventional wisdom has held that marriage's economic advantages probably help account for the disparity, but it now appears that hunch was wrong.
Supportive relationships, not greater economic resources, increase longevity for married cancer patients, according to a new study.
"The major driving factor is greater social support, and less social isolation, among married patients," study author Scarlett Lin Gomez, a research scientist at the Cancer Prevention Institute of California, told The Huffington Post.
"Social support can translate into tangible or emotional support," Gomez added, noting that spousal or family encouragement can mean better health behaviors and stricter adherence to doctor's orders, including more exercise and a better diet. Social support can also serve as a buffer to stress.
And while married cancer patients analyzed in the study did indeed have greater economic resources (like dual income and private health insurance) and lived in better neighborhoods than singles did, those factors didn't have much influence on the longevity benefit of marriage, according to Gomez.
The study, published this month in the journal Cancer, examined data from almost 800,000 cancer patients in the California Cancer Registry -- basically everyone diagnosed with cancer in California -- between 2000 and 2009. It followed them until 2012.
After adjusting for health insurance and neighborhood differences, researchers found that unmarried men with cancer diagnoses were 22 percent more likely to die than their married counterparts. Unmarried women were 15 percent more likely to die.
The study found marriage-related longevity benefits for the 10 most common kinds of cancer, with the greatest benefits for the most curable cancer varieties, such as prostate and breast cancers. "Because of the less aggressive nature of these cancers, there may be more opportunities for the beneficial effects to take place," Gomez explained.
Men also reaped greater cancer-survival benefits from marriage than women, a phenomenon that's consistent with previous research showing that men generally see more health returns from marriage than women, including heart health protection, a reduced risk for Alzheimer's disease and better overall mental health. (Of course, it's important to note that healthier individuals might be more likely to get and stay married in the first place.)
How to harness the health benefits of marriage if you're single
It's crucial to keep in mind that it's a supportive, happy relationship that creates health benefits for married couples, not the institution of marriage itself. Troubled or stressful marriages can take a toll on health, and divorced couples have worse health outcomes than people who have never been married, according to the New York Times.
For single people, supportive relationships -- even if it's not specifically the support of a spouse -- could be the key to better longevity in the face of cancer.
"Having a strong support system can have meaningful impacts on the odds of survival after a cancer diagnosis," Gomez said. "Single patients should take advantage of their support networks, even if they do not necessarily have spouses of children to turn to during a cancer diagnosis."