There is an association between marital status and health, according to a new study by researchers from the Unversities of Glasgow and Bristol.
The researchers tracked changes in cardiovascular risk factors for 620 married fathers over the course of 22 years.
Participants completed a 12-item questionnaire (measure of intimate bonds scale) to assess the quality of their marital relationship when their child was almost three and again when their child was nine.
Relationship quality was defined as consistently good, consistently bad, improving or deteriorating.
The researchers assessed their blood pressure, resting heart rate, weight, blood fat profile, and fasting glucose levels when their child was nearly 19, on the basis that it would take some time for changes in cardiovascular risk factors to occur after any corresponding changes in relationship quality.
The results showed little change in cardiovascular risk factors for men whose relationships with their spouses were consistently good or bad.
But a more distinct pattern emerged for those whose relationships had either improved or deteriorated during the study period. Improving relationships were associated with lower levels of low density lipoprotein (so-called ‘bad cholesterol’) and relatively lower weight (of around 1 BMI unit) compared with consistently good relationships. Deteriorating relationships were associated with worsening diastolic blood pressure.
This is an observational study, so no firm conclusions can be drawn about cause and effect. Also, a large number of participants dropped out of the long-term study.
Writing in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health, the researchers said: ‘Traditionally, beneficial effects of marital status were thought to be mediated by either health selection, confounding by socioeconomic status, or psychosocial mechanisms.’
‘The latter argument has been used to support the observation that men appear to gain more benefit than women, as women have larger social networks and are less dependent on their partner than men.’
‘Assuming a causal association, then marriage counselling for couples with deteriorating relationships may have added benefits in terms of physical health over and above psychological well-being, though in some cases ending the relationship may be the best outcome.’