Getting Married and Getting Heart Disease: A National Study
A report of an 8-year study of heart disease, based on a nationally representative sample of more than 9,000 people in late mid-life. When the study first started in 1992, the participants ranged in age from 51 to 60.
The participants were contacted five times from 1992 and 2000. Their marital status, cardiovascular health status, and health behaviors were assessed. Other information (for example, socioeconomic status) was also recorded.
There are five different marital statuses:
• Continuously married (i.e., first and only marriage)
• Always single
Let’s look first at the prevalence of heart disease at the start of the study. (Heart disease = doctor diagnosis of heart attack, coronary heart disease, angina, congestive heart failure, or other heart problems, or stroke.) In the table below is the percentage of people (averaged across all ages) who had heart disease at the start of the study. Lower numbers indicate less prevalence of heart disease, so the group ranked #1 is the healthiest. The rank-ordering of heart disease for the 5 marital statuses was the same for the men as for the women. See if you can guess which marital status goes with each rank.
1. 8.4 13.0
2. 8.7 13.5
3. 10.7 16.4
4. 10.8 16.5
5. 11.6 17.7
Okay, here are the answers:
1. Always single
2. Continuously married
So there you have it. The lowest rate of heart disease is found among the women and men, ages 51-60, who had been single all their lives. The rates for the continuously married are higher, though not statistically so.
The study went on for years, and the authors calculated the probability of experiencing heart disease for each age, from 51 through 65. (See Table 5 in the article.) Of course, the probabilities increase with age for men and women of all marital statuses. Let’s see where they end up at age 65. Here are the results for the MEN.
1. 29, always-single men
2. 33, widowed men
3. 42, remarried men
4. 46, continuously married men
5. 50, divorced men
Look at what has happened to the continuously married men. At 46%, the likelihood of having heart disease is greater for them than for any other group of men except the divorced. The always-single men are doing way better, at just 29%.
(For women at age 65, the probabilities were 32 for continuously married, 38 for always-single, 43 for widowed, 45 for remarried, and 47 for divorced. So even though men typically have higher rates of heart disease than women, the always-single men have the lowest rates of all 10 of the groups.)
The authors also looked at how the risk of heart disease changed for each successive year of marriage. Here, in their words, is what they found: “Each year in marriage increased rather than decreased the risk of cardiovascular disease by 2% for both men and women.” The risk increased each year both in first marriages and in remarriages.
Because the authors collected data on health measures such as smoking and obesity, and on conditions described as morbid (really, that’s the technical term), they could venture a data-based explanation as to why each year of marriage added to the risk of heart disease: “Longer marriages were associated with less healthy behaviors and an accumulation of morbid conditions, such as hypertension, diabetes, and high cholesterol.”