Previous research has proved the link between a difficult marriage and negative health effects in lab-based studies. Now, the finding has been confirmed in one of the first population-representative studies, showing a link between living unhappily ever after and having heart health issues.
A study published in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior looked at data from around 1,200 married people, between ages 57 and 85, over a period of five years. The participants had self-reported their cardiovascular health and also their overall marriage quality — things like how demanding or critical a spouse is.
The striking results showed that while older couples may have weathered more years together, the negative effects of a low-quality marriage became stronger with age. Women in particular, were more likely than men, to endure heart problems. Researchers say this could be because women tend to internalize their negative feelings. “It may be that women are more likely to internalize their emotions and feelings about marital strain and thus are more likely to feel depressed than are men,” the authors write. They also said that stress resulting from marital problems or dissatisfaction could have a stronger effect as our immune system weakens with age.
“Marriage counseling is focused largely on younger couples. But these results show that marital quality is just as important at older ages, even when the couple has been married 40 or 50 years,” lead researcher Hui Liu said in a statement. Researchers also say the findings are evidence that public policies and programs need to be introduced to improve marital quality, to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease among older adults.
While it’s no surprise that a troubled marriage can take its toll on your health, some research suggests that marriage in and of itself has a positive effect on one’s health when compared with staying unmarried. The Framingham Offspring study followed over 3,500 adults over a decade and found that even when considering existing health factors, married men are 46 percent less likely to to die than unmarried men. This study in particular did not find a correlation between marital dissatisfaction and a lowering in the so-called “protective” effect marriage seems to have. Researchers suggested that this could be because spouses encouraged men to take better care of their health, with regular checkups and the like.
So what does this mean for people in a bad marriage? “It’s not like you have contact with your spouse and the next day you have heart disease,” Liu told The Washington Post. The study has some limitations due to the relatively small sample size, data is self-reported and researchers say future studies should have a longer follow-up period.
“It really takes time. That may explain why it’s stronger for older people. Your body will remember the effect.”