April 18, 2006

Unhappy Marriage May Harm Older Adults’ Health

By Amy Norton

NEW YORK -- A troubled marriage may speed the decline in health that comes with age, a study has found.

While research shows that married people often enjoy better health than singles do, a number of studies have suggested that an unhappy marriage can take a major health toll. Some, for example, have found a higher rate of heart disease among people who are dissatisfied with their marriage.

This latest study, published in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior, suggests that marital strain may be particularly damaging to older adults' health.

Lead researcher Dr. Debra Umberson said it's the first study she's aware of to look at whether the health effects of marital problems differ depending on age.

Umberson, who chairs the sociology department at the University of Texas-Austin, said there are several reasons that older adults could be more vulnerable to marital woes.

Similar to the case with smoking, she told Reuters Health, chronic stress can have a cumulative effect on health over the years. Add to that the fact that older adults are more susceptible to these effects due to age-related declines in immune function and a higher rate of health problems such as heart disease.

Umberson and her colleagues based their findings on data from a survey of U.S. adults begun in 1986. They focused on 1,049 men and women who were interviewed at three points over eight years and remained married throughout that time.

Study participants answered questions on marital quality -- including whether their spouse made them feel "loved and cared for" and listened to their concerns, and whether they had frequent disagreements and conflicts.

They were also asked to rate their physical health on a range from "poor" to "excellent."

Overall, the study found, men and women who reported more marital strain also reported a steeper decline in their health over time. But when the researchers separated study participants into three age groups - those ages 30, 50 and 70 at the study's start - only the oldest group showed negative health effects.

Similarly, only older adults showed health benefits from a happy marriage.

"Unhappily married individuals have yet another reason to identify marital difficulties and seek to improve marital quality," Umberson and her colleagues conclude. "Their very health may depend on it."

Professional counseling is one of the best options for addressing marital woes, according to Umberson. But, she noted, older adults may be less open to marriage counseling, and they might be more comfortable speaking with someone they trust, such as a minister or pastor.

SOURCE: Journal of Health and Social Behavior, March 2006.