Couples in a happy marriage have lower blood pressure than those who are single. And the single folks fare better on blood pressure tests than those in “distressed” marriages, according to BYU research.
“We were interested in looking at the impact of marital status and relationship quality on health, including mental health and ambulatory blood pressure,” said Brigham Young University psychologist and assistant professor Julianne Holt-Lunstad. The findings are being published today in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine.
Holt-Lunstad and undergraduate students Wendy Birmingham and Brandon Jones found that a supportive social network did not compensate for the differences among those who are either single or less-happily married.
“This research suggests that it is not marriage per se that is beneficial, as some research has suggested, but rather a happy marriage,” she said.
They looked at 99 single people and 204 married individuals. The married participants were given a survey that’s widely used to measure marriage quality, the results sorted into happy marriage and distressed marriage categories, although they weren’t told what their results showed. All the participants also completed a survey that outlined their social networks and support systems.
For 24 hours, all 303 participants wore portable blood pressure monitors that randomly recorded blood pressure about 72 times. The results showed those in happy marriages had blood pressure about four points lower than that of single adults. The highest blood pressure belonged to the group with unhappy marriages. Blood pressure has been linked to a number of health woes, including cardiovascular disease.
Those classified as happily married experienced a greater “dipping” of blood pressure at night. When blood pressure doesn’t drop at night, there’s more risk of cardiovascular problems, among other things. The middle-of-the-night decreases may provide a health- protective factor, she said.
Previous studies have linked lower blood pressure to marriage. But whether the quality of the marriage itself makes a difference had not been shown. This study found a five-point difference between those who were single and those in low-quality marriages, she said. That level was classified as “pre-hypertensive.”
The Anthony Marchionne Foundation and BYU’s Family Studies Center funded the research. Next, Holt-Lunstand hopes to study couples participating in marriage counseling to see if fixing marriages can improve health.
Co-author Jones is now in medical school at George Washington University, while Birmingham is working on a Ph.D. in social psychology at the University of Utah.