The Effects of Marriage on Health: A Synthesis of Recent Research Evidence. Research Brief. Understanding the Marriage-Health Connection

07/01/2007

The relationship between marriage and health is complex. Marital status can both affect health outcomes and be affected by them. Healthier people may have a better chance of marrying and staying married because they may be viewed as more desirable marriage partners based on their physical attractiveness, earnings potential, mental well-being, degree of self-sufficiency, or likely longevity. Social scientists describe this pattern as the “selection” of healthy people into marriage. If this is the only reason for the correlation between marriage and health, then marriage is not causing better health. Instead, the observed health differences between married and unmarried people are the result of healthier people being more likely to marry.

Alternatively, there may be a true causal link between marriage and better health. Marriage could improve health outcomes in a variety of ways. It may result in two incomes, as well as economies of scale, improving economic well-being.(2)  Having more income could, in turn, improve health outcomes by enhancing access to health care or lowering stress. In addition, a spouse may play an important role in monitoring and encouraging healthy behaviors (such as good eating habits and regular exercise), as well as in discouraging unhealthy ones (such as smoking or heavy drinking).(3)  Marriage may also provide an emotionally fulfilling, intimate relationship, satisfying the need for social connection, which could have implications for both physical and mental health.(4)  Most researchers conclude that the association between marriage and health represents a combination of the selection of healthier people into marriage and true health benefits from marriage.(5, 6, 7)

Health Outcomes Examined

This review highlights the recent literature on the effects of marriage on health-related measures from five broad areas:

  • Health Behaviors.  This review focuses on behaviors that have well-documented connections with physical health outcomes:  alcohol and drug use, smoking, body weight, and exercise.
  • Health Care Access, Use, and Costs.  This review examines the links between marriage and three main health care outcomes:  (1) health insurance status; (2) health care use (in particular, hospital and nursing home care); and (3) total health care costs.
  • Mental Health.  This review focuses on the effects of marital status on one common form of psychological distress:  the presence of depressive symptoms.
  • Physical Health and Longevity.  This review examines the effect of marriage on self-rated health and longevity, as well as a small set of chronic health conditions.
  • Intergenerational Health Effects.  This review focuses on a growing body of research linking a child's parent's marital status with that child's health outcomes as an adult.

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