Marriage: The Best Health Supplement of All

By Anne Gagliano

I’ve recently been diagnosed with early stages of osteoarthritis in my hands. They’ve become increasingly stiff and sore of late, so I went to the doc to see if anything could be done. Turns out, not really. It’s just part of the aging process and normal for my age. But there are supplements I can take that may help a bit. So off I went to our local big box store to see if I could buy some in bulk. I’m not one for vitamins, so I usually skip that section. As I stood there looking for turmeric, the new popular joint health wonder pill, my eyes began to blur in a heady feeling of vertigo: The rows upon rows of pills were absolutely staggering. Do people really need all this stuff? I wondered. And how are we supposed to know?  Seems one must have a PhD in supplements these days just to “be healthy.”  It’s overwhelming, to say the least.

As a columnist, I research marriage stuff all the time and, coincidentally, as I’m trying to age gracefully, articles about the physical benefits of marriage keep popping up. Bingo!  There’s a growing body of evidence linking marriage with better health. The primary reason for this seems to be that a happy marriage/relationship lowers cortisol levels, a hormone released into the body from stress. This is important for firefighters to be aware of, as firefighting is a high stress job. Countering the effects of cortisol is essential for a firefighter’s health, and marriage may be a key element. High levels of cortisol weaken the immune function, which renders one more vulnerable to a plethora of illness and disease. Love and social connection strengthen us in body and mind; hence, married people reap many, many blessings.

An article from Harvard Health Publishing written by Robert H. Shmerling, MD, says that married couples tend to:

  • Live longer
  • Have fewer strokes and heart attacks
  • Have lower chances of becoming depressed
  • Be less likely to have advanced cancer at the time of diagnosis and are more likely to survive cancer for a longer period of time
  • Survive a major operation more often

Heart attacks and strokes. In a recent study published in “Health News,” researchers examined data from 34 previous studies involving 2 million people. Overall, they found that compared to married people, adults who were divorced, widowed, or never married were 42% more likely to develop cardiovascular disease and 16% more likely to develop coronary artery disease. Unmarried people were 43% more likely to die from heart disease and 55% more likely to die from strokes.

Senior study author Dr. Mamas said, “Spousal pressure to take medications and to participate in rehab improves the outcomes after strokes and heart attacks, and spouses may recognize the early symptoms of heart attack and strokes and seek aid.”  But, researchers admitted to there being an unknown factor in these findings, something that couldn’t be tested. “It’s a bit of a mystery,” they said. Perhaps love is the answer?

Depression and dementia. Several studies have found that overall mental health is better when you’re married. Some studies suggest that married soldiers and first responders have lower rates of PTSD. Those with no social support of a close personal relationship have been strongly linked with higher depression rates as well.

A new study done by Michigan State University determined that married people may be less likely to develop dementia as they age. Conversely, divorcees were at two times the risk compared to married people, with the rate being even higher for men than for women.

The first part of the study compared married individuals to four types of unmarried individuals: divorced/separated, widowed, never married, and cohabiters (living together but not married). Among these, divorcees had the highest risk of dementia. Head researcher Hui Liu had this to say, “This research is important because the number of unmarried older adults in the US continues to grow as people live longer and their marital histories become more complex. Marital status is an important but overlooked social risk/protective factor for dementia.”

Alcohol use. Another health benefit of marriage, one that is often overlooked, is the lowered tendency of alcohol abuse. Alcohol overuse is extremely hard on the body and impacts everything, including safety. Firefighters are vulnerable to alcohol abuse from the effects of high stress and sleep deprivation. But marriage is a wonderful source of help and support in this area.

Scientists from Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine collected data from more than 3 million subjects from 1960-1990. They found that marriage is linked with a significantly reduced risk for alcohol use disorder compared to single people. Marriage offered the strongest protection factor for people at risk for alcohol problems, including family history or high-stress professions. The study states, “For males, getting married reduced the risk for alcohol use disorder by 60%; for females, it was over 70%.”

There’s a social influencing behavior that’s protective in marriage. Dr. Richard Rosenthal, professor of psychiatry at the School of Medicine and director of addiction psychiatry for Mount Sinai, says this of the lowered rates of alcohol abuse among married people: “It’s due to the spouse intervention, the impact of a partner modeling behavior for their high-risk spouse and offering feedback about drinking. These findings are fascinating and profound … and might be the key to treatment.”

Obesity. It has been commonly believed for years that married people are fatter than single people. The reasons?  Newlyweds gain weight as they relax about their appearance and start having children. The statistics tend to end there. But new studies are finding that not only is this old belief false but by middle age the opposite is true. Middle-aged married people tend to be slimmer than middle-aged single people, with this one caveat:  happily married.

Researchers from a Harvard study asked 2,650 people in long-term marriages about their levels of support and strain as well as the overall quality of their partnerships. They assigned numerical values to their relationships based on these responses, then tracked weight gain over a nine-year period. People with high levels of marriage quality and support were less likely to gain weight over time than people who were in less supportive marriages. For each step up on the marriage quality scale, people gained about ¾ of a pound less and had a 10% lower risk of obesity. For each step up on the support scale, they gained 1.5 fewer pounds and had a 22% lower risk of obesity. “This study suggests a supportive relationship is associated with a healthier body weight in midlife. It adds evidence that a positive social relationship is a health asset.”—Ying Chen, co-author of the study.

No need to seek that PhD in health supplements, firefighter couples. You have the best aid readily available to you: your marriage. Seek to strengthen it and watch your health soar. With a solid, happy marriage, you’ll be less likely to die of cancer, heart attack, and stroke; less likely to fall victim to alcoholism, dementia, and depression; and more likely to maintain your weight. Now that’s what I call a wonder pill!

If you’re interested in my book, Challenges of the Firefighter Marriage, check it out HERE

Use code CFM20FL at checkout for 20% off! 

Anne Gagliano

Anne Gagliano has been married to Captain Mike Gagliano of the Seattle (WA) Fire Department for 34 years. She and her husband lecture together on building and maintaining a strong marriage.

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