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The Importance of Being ... Married

Till Death Do Us Part

WebMD Feature

July 30, 2001 -- There are many good reasons to choose wisely and carefully when picking a spouse -- not the least of which is that you'll be spending an awful lot of time with them in both the near and distant future, possibly even raising children together.

 

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So you want to find someone with whom you are compatible, share values -- someone who makes you happy. But perhaps one of the most compelling reasons to make an informed choice is that your spouse can affect your physical health in very direct, measurable ways.

 

"The choice of spouse is one of the most significant you'll make in your life; it is more serious than choosing a house or anything," says Brian Baker, a psychiatrist at the University of Toronto. "There is nothing like a good, solid marriage."

The Heart of the Matter

Baker should know: He has spent the past decade conducting studies that look at the effect of marital strain on cardiovascular health. In one of his most recent studies, he followed both men and women with borderline high blood pressure for three years and found that blood pressure is directly linked to what he calls "marital cohesion" -- how much couples do and share together.

 

"We found that if you had a bad marriage, it was best to avoid your spouse -- because if you are with your spouse, your blood pressure went up, and if you weren't with your spouse, your blood pressure went down," says Baker. "In a good marriage the opposite was the case."

 

An earlier study found that couples in good marriages had thinner heart walls than those in bad marriages. A thicker heart wall means higher blood pressure, "so that is an interesting finding," says Baker.

 

While the majority of studies so far have looked at cardiovascular effects, the plusses and minuses of marriage don't appear to be limited to that system.

 

In fact, they could be tied to how your body handles stress, says Baker, and the way that stress manifests itself could control the system most affected.

 

"It could be the immune system, or depression, gastrointestinal problems, rashes, or emotional disorders like anxiety conditions," he says.

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.

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