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Married vs. Single: Health Gap Narrows

Study Shows Health Improving for Never-Married People, Especially Men
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By Caroline Wilbert
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Aug. 11, 2008 -- Getting married doesn't improve one's health as much as it used to, according to a new study.

Married people have historically reported better health than their never-married peers. It has generally been accepted that marriage provides social, psychological, and financial resources that improve overall health. But a new study, published in the September issue of the Journal of Health and Social Behavior, suggests the gap is narrowing, particularly for men.

During the past 30 years, the self-rated health of never-marrieds, both men and women, has improved. Never-married men have steadily reported better health and now report health approaching that of their married peers.

One reason for the trend, according to the study, is that today's society might offer never-married men "greater access to social resources and support" that were in the past primarily found in a spouse. These may include larger pools of never-married people, potentially offering larger groups of friends.

However, things are not improving for all singles. The self-rated health of the widowed, divorced, and separated worsened over time relative to the married. Widows and widowers had the most dramatic declines. In 1972, the widowed were about as likely to report good health as the married, but in 2003, they were 7% less likely to report good health than their married counterparts were.

Researcher Hui Liu, an assistant professor and sociologist at Michigan State University, and colleagues call for policymakers to reconsider enacting policies and programs that encourage marriage.

"Encouraging marriage in order to promote health may be misguided," the researchers write. "In fact, getting married increases one's risk for eventual marital dissolution, and marital dissolution seems to be worse for self-rated health now than at any point in the past three decades."

The study is based on 32 years of data from the National Health Interview Study, which includes about 1.1 million participants, including those who are married, widowed, divorced, separated, and never married. The participants were between the ages of 25 and 80.

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