Marriage and health

People who are married may overestimate how healthy they really are, new research has shown. Published in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior, the study also revealed those who tie the knot may have less protection against mortality when their health begins to fail them.

Researchers from the Ohio State University and the University of Texas at Austin looked at information regarding 789,000 participants in the National Health Interview Survey - who took part in the programme between 1986 and 2004 - and discovered marriage may not be as beneficial for health as people think.

Hui Zheng, Assistant Professor of Sociology at the Ohio State University, explained that while wedlock can be good for those who already enjoy excellent health, the picture is not the same for everyone.

Mr Zheng stated: "For those who are already in poor health, marriage doesn't seem to provide any extra benefits."

It was demonstrated that results for both men and women were similar in this regard, in addition to them being the same for divorced, widowed and never married individuals.

Chartered Psychologist Dr Peter Lambley said: 

"The protective value of relationships such as co-habitation and marriage have long been of interest to researchers concerned with health and illness prevention. A great deal of research has established the fact that overall being in a relationship is more protective than living alone. Even having a pet of some kind is thought to be protective. This study by Zheng and Thomas helps to add a cautionary note to the prevailing opinion about the power of relationships and raises important questions about the way relationships have been studied.'

"At one level it seriously questions the value of relying on self-report questionnaires about health status. One of the main findings of the study is in fact that people in relationships may overrate the level of their health. At another level it raises doubts about the benefits of relationships for people who have poor health or who develop poor health in a relationship; mortality rates for such people are similar to people not in relationships.'

"Marital or intimate relationships are perhaps the most complex of all human interactions and one of the dangers inherent in studying them is that of reducing this complexity to constructs or beliefs that may sound enticingly true but which may not reflect what goes on accurately. Relationships operate at many levels and in many ways. They can create as well as dissipate stress for example.They can operate as biological and emotional regulators which may protect the partners from certain illnesses but not others.  More importantly, relationships are not necessarily static - they have a developmental life as it were of their own and change over time. In short they may be protective in some ways and at certain times in their developmental history but not at others. The study by Zheng and Thomas will hopefully stimulate further conceptual and empirical work into relationships and the complex role they play in illness protection and illness development."