When it comes to living a long and healthy life, a person may just be better off married than single.
Researchers recently published yet another study, this time in the Journal of Aging and Health, suggesting that single life lacks long-term benefits. Over 8,700 Norwegian adults between the ages of 44 to 68 participated in the study examining correlations between the participants’ likelihood of being diagnosed with dementia after the age of 70. In the study, researchers found that divorced and single adults were 50% to 73% more likely to end up with a dementia diagnosis after filtering out other potential risk factors. Thus researchers concluded that there is a strong association between being married and a person’s risk of getting dementia.
And this isn’t the first study to tie marital status to dementia risk. It adds to a running list of evidence that continues to suggest there are possibly more health benefits to being coupled up than alone.
Researchers found that divorced and single adults were 50% to 73% more likely to end up with a dementia diagnosis.
Of course, this largely depends on the characteristics of a marriage as not all marriages are created equal. Gender, socioeconomic status, and race all play a role in the quality of a marriage, and presumably a person’s happiness. But it’s worth asking: Can being married give someone the advantage of living a longer and healthier life?
Dr. Andrew Sommerlad, an associate professor at University College London’s Division of Psychiatry, who has done research on social contact and dementia, told Salon it’s not necessarily about having a ring on one’s finger but more about what marriage can provide.
“There is nothing about wearing a wedding ring that reduces risk of dementia, but it is likely that the health behaviors that accompany marriage, promote a healthier lifestyle and improve brain health,” Sommerlad said. “So that might partly be due to lifestyle factors like eating more healthily or exercise.”
In 2016, Sommerlad and his colleagues examined studies that looked at the potential role of marital status and dementia risk in more than 800,000 participants from Europe, North and South America, and Asia. The analysis found that single people were 42% more likely to develop dementia compared to those who were married.
It adds to a running list of evidence that continues to suggest there are possibly more health benefits to being coupled up than alone.
“I think the findings speak well to all people, whether married or not, about the need to maintain social contact and participation alongside other healthy factors that we know have a beneficial effect on our brain health and reduce dementia risk,” Sommerlad said. “Aside from marriage, having more social contact, and being less lonely, is associated with better cognitive ability and a lower risk of developing dementia.”
Dr. Carla Manly, a clinical psychologist and author of “Joy From Fear,” told Salon she believes that people “who are in healthy partnerships tend to have better mental health compared to those who feel isolated or chronically lonely.” As Sommerlad mentioned, loneliness can often lead to poor health outcomes, hence why health studies on marriage tend to favor the married.
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“Given that loneliness—which is at epidemic levels—is associated with both poor mental and physical health, one of the key upsides of a healthy partnership is the natural reduction in the stress associated with feeling isolated and alone,” Manly said. “Many people find that marriage gives them a sense of internal and external stability; loving partnerships tend to provide emotional and social support—both of which boost mental health.”
Another analysis found that single people were 42% more likely to develop dementia compared to those who were married.
This is likely why there are many more studies that have found a link between marriage and improved physical health — because loneliness can put the physical body in a chronic state of stress. Studies have suggested that loneliness is strongly linked to depression and anxiety.
However, more research suggests that when it comes to being married the quality of the marriage matters. For example, in 2013, researchers explored the link between marriage and inflammation, which has been associated with autoimmune diseases, such as cancers, arthritis and heart disease. When looking at the biomarkers of inflammation, researchers found that women (but not men) had higher levels of inflammation in marriages with lower levels of spousal support. Researchers of the study suggested that scientists needed to take a deeper look at inflammation and marital quality, as they suspected marital strain can worsen the effects of stress on inflammation.
“On a pragmatic level, stress is reduced when partners share in household duties, financial matters, and childrearing tasks,” Manly said. “And, of course, when partners are attentive to each other, physical health can benefit by increased attention to each other’s overall wellbeing.”
Loneliness can put the physical body in a chronic state of stress.
By its nature, marriage provides more opportunities for social contact. But it also provides people with more economic opportunities and resources, which can help contribute to better health, too. For example, in 2018 Vanderbilt researchers published a report that found legalizing gay marriage led to an increase in healthcare access for gay men. Notably, the trend did not apply to women.
“We found that lesbian, gay, or bisexual adults were more likely to get married after having access to legal same-sex marriage, and for men, that is associated with a statistically significant increase in the probability that they have health insurance, have a usual source of care, and have a routine health check-up,” said co-author Gilbert Gonzales Jr.
But this doesn’t mean single people are doomed to die young and unhealthy.
“Aside from marriage, having more social contact, and being less lonely, is associated with better cognitive ability,” Sommerlad assured us. “It seems that taking part in social activities, leisure activities and hobbies is also linked to a lower risk of developing dementia.”
Married or not, we all must be less lonely to live a long life.
about the surprising health benefits of marriage