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50+: Live Better, Longer

The Importance of Being -- Married

There are many reasons to choose wisely and carefully when picking a spouse, but here's one you may not know: New research suggests that a good marriage is good for your health -- and that a bad one can be a real heartbreaker.
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The Benefits of Wedded Bliss

Baker's research joins a small but growing number of studies pinpointing the varied health effects of marriage. One study, for example, showed that marital stress can double a person's risk of developing diabetes. Another study, out of Sweden, showed women in marital distress had a three times greater risk of a second heart attack. And a third showed that positive marital interactions can boost immunity and reduce the risk of heart disease by keeping stress hormones low.

"The benefits are better physical health, more resistance to infection, fewer infections, and a reduced likelihood of dying from cancer, from heart disease, from all major killers," psychologist and author John Gottman, PhD, tells WebMD. "The other health benefit is longevity: People live longer if they are in marital relationships, particularly if they are in good, satisfying relationships." Gottman, considered by many to be a pioneer in the field of marriage research, is the James Mifflin Professor in the department of psychology at the University of Washington in Seattle.

"There are physical benefits and mental health benefits," says Gottman. "You have less depression, less anxiety disorders, less psychosis, less posttraumatic stress disorders, fewer phobias. You also have fewer injuries due to accidents."

"The process gets reversed when relationships dissolve," he points out. This is especially true when one spouse dies. Oftentimes the surviving partner will die of what some call the "broken-heart syndrome."

"There is a bereavement process that is really well-documented," says Gottman. "People really go through [physical] grief and they secrete [the stress hormone] cortisol, and a lot of systems really shut down. [The grieving spouses] become more vulnerable to all kinds of infectious agents; their immune systems aren't working. So a person will get something like pneumonia and die very quickly. And they also lose the will to live."

In this scenario, men are more likely to be the one who dies of broken-heart syndrome, Gottman notes. But then again, men also typically reap the greater health benefits from being married while alive.

For Guys, for Better or for Worse Is Mostly for Better

"If it is a good marriage, the benefits are equally as great for women as for men; for men, just being married confers a tremendous amount of benefits," Gottman says. "One of the major ways in which marriage confers effects is to reduce risk: Men stop engaging in risky behavior like bungee jumping and driving drunk. ... [They start] getting their health looked at on a regular basis and eating well. Single men really don't do that; they sort of fall apart.

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