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Fewer people are getting married; how does marriage affect health?

December 14, 2011|By Jeannine Stein, Los Angeles Times / For the Booster Shots blog
  • Fewer people are getting married, a report finds. Marriage can substantially affect health, various studies find.
Fewer people are getting married, a report finds. Marriage can substantially… (Los Angeles Times )

Fewer people are tying the knot, and when they do they tend to be older, says a report from the Pew Research Center.

Analyzing U.S. census data, the study finds that today 51% of all adults age 18 and older are married, compared with 72% in 1960. The average age for first-time brides and grooms is the highest it's ever been: 26.5 years old for brides and 28.7 for grooms.

The changing numbers could have to do with the fact that more people are living together, staying single or becoming single parents, all factors that are changing the landscape.

Several studies have found that marriage can have a substantial influence on various aspects of health and well-being, but no one is sure how these shifting demographics will affect that. Overall, research shows that marriage is beneficial to health -- having a spouse is typically a marker for better overall care -- but one study finds that may be changing.

A 2008 study in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior found that, although married people are still generally healthier than unmarried people, the gap is narrowing. Using data from the National Health Interview Survey, researchers discovered that health has improved overall for unmarried men, women, blacks and whites.

Pushing the trend may be the fact that the health of unmarried men in particular has vastly improved, perhaps due to better access to the social resources and support that traditionally come from spouses.

But early marriage may benefit some young people, a 2008 study in the Journal of Marriage and Family found. Researchers compared depression symptoms in more than 8,000 young adults, about half of whom got married and the rest of whom stayed single over a five-year period. Few differences were seen between the groups.

Also, those who married young tended to come from low-income families with one or no parents, and those parents typically had lower education levels. Marrying early, the study authors said, could provide an escape from a bad home situation.

Marriage may lessen antisocial behavior, a 2010 study in the journal Archives of General Psychiatry found. Researchers followed 289 sets of male twins from ages 17 through 29; 2.9% were married at age 20, and 58.8% were or had been married at age 29.

Men who showed less antisocial behavior at ages 17 and 20 were more likely to have been married by the age of 29, showing some self-selection. But once they were married, levels of antisocial behavior went down further. The study authors speculated that some aspects of marriage could have a positive effect, such as social bonding or spending less time with rebellious friends.

And marriage may be good for the heart, a 2011 study in the journal Health Psychology found. Among 225 men and women who had coronary bypass surgery, those who were married had better survival rates. Being happily married made the odds increase even more.

In addition, being married could improve survival rates for those with colon cancer. A 2011 study in the journal Cancer Epidemiology found that married people with the disease had a 14% lower risk of death compared with unmarried people. Researchers looked at a pool of 127,753 patient records.

Those who were married had been diagnosed when their cancer was at an earlier stage, and they opted for more aggressive treatment.

Do you find that marriage has provided some health benefits? Or just the opposite? Let us know.

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