The Health Advantages of Marriage

In this blog we are going to discuss and learn about the health benefits of being married.  The pursuit of health has become a cultural phenomenon. Diet, exercise, supplements, relaxation and medications have all been touted as the  way to achieve health. It’s surprising, then, that one of the most powerful predictors of health and well-being remains largely ignored by the health and wellness community. For the last 35 years, family sociologists contributed to compelling research suggesting married people enjoy significantly greater health than the unmarried of every category.

Research suggests that married people enjoy better health than single people. For example, as compared with those who are single, those who are married tend to

  • live longer
  • have fewer strokes and heart attacks
  • have a lower chance of becoming depressed
  • be less likely to have advanced cancer at the time of diagnosis and more likely to survive cancer for a longer period of time
  • survive a major operation more often.

This doesn’t mean that just being married automatically provides these health benefits. People in stressful, unhappy marriages may be worse off than a single person who is surrounded by supportive and caring friends, family, and loved ones. Interestingly, many of these health benefits are more pronounced for married men than for married women.

How does this work?

  • It’s all about immune function. Studies have found that people in happy relationships have stronger immune function than those who are not. And, cortisol tends to be released in lower amounts in married people as compared with those who are single. That may be important because cortisol levels tend to reflect levels of stress, and high cortisol levels can impair immune function.
  • Your behavior improves with marriage. Married people may take fewer risks, eat better, and maintain healthier lifestyles, on average, compared with single people. There is also evidence that married people tend to keep regular doctors’ appointments and follow doctors’ recommendations more often than single people.
  • Mental health is better when you’re married. Poor social supports (as might be more likely for those who are single) have been strongly linked with higher rates of depression, loneliness, and social isolation, which have in turn been associated with poorer health outcomes.
  • Married people have better health before getting married. It’s reasonable to wonder whether people with medical problems (or who are prone to them due to unhealthy habits) are less likely to get married; that would leave healthier people getting married and that could account for the “marriage health benefit.” But, some studies have actually found that unhealthy men tend to marry at a younger age and divorce less often than healthy men.

None of the evidence in support of these theories proves (or refutes) a health benefit to marriage. So, if there is a health benefit to marriage, the precise reason is not known. But researchers continue to study the question.

A newly recognized “marriage benefit” for the heart?

A recent study of 25,000 people in England found that among people having a heart attack, those who were married were 14% more likely to survive and they were able to leave the hospital two days sooner than single people having a heart attack.

This study was presented at a medical conference, so the results should be considered preliminary. But it does raise some questions. For example, were the heart attacks of single people more severe than those in people who were married? And was the health of the single heart attack victims worse before the heart attack than that of the married group?

The headlines describing this study might have single people feeling even more pressured than before to find a marriage partner. I think that would be unfortunate, as a study of this type can only conclude there is an “association” or link between marriage and better health outcomes after a heart attack — but it cannot say with confidence that marriage is the reason for that benefit.

Mental Health and Happiness

Married men and women also have less likelihood of developing any form of mental illness. A 1991 study of the mental health in America found that married people have significantly lower rates of severe depression and at least half the likelihood of developing any psychiatric disorder then never-married, cohabiting and divorced people.Lee Robins and Darrel Regier, Psychiatric Disorders in America: The Epidemiologic Catchment Area Study (New York: Free Press, 1991), 64, 334.

These mental health benefits are a good reason for married couples considering divorce to work at staying together. Divorce and separation are associated with a much higher risk of mental illness—and most of all—depression.

In addition to mental health, married people are more likely to describe themselves as happy. Men in nations with higher rates of marriage are happier than men in nations with lower rates of marriage.Steven Stack and J. Ross Eshleman, “Marital Status and Happiness: A 17-Nation Study,” Journal of Marriage and Family 60 (1998): 527-36. Some researchers have compared the overall increased happiness experienced by the married to the boost experienced after receiving a $100,000 annual pay raise.


The research is clear, diverse and consistent. Those who marry have a much higher likelihood of living longer, being healthier and being happier. These benefits are exclusive to marriage. For better or worse, married people tend to enjoy longer, healthier lives than those who never marry or dissolve their marriages.