Married People Are Less Likely to Get Dementia, New Study Finds—Here Are 4 Other Health Benefits
EXPERTS SAY PARTNERSHIP HAS BOTH PHYSICAL AND MENTAL ADVANTAGES.
Marriage is something you might look forward to as a milestone—especially when you know you've found the person you want to share your life with. But aside from the big celebration, the honeymoon, and the ensuing "wedded bliss," did you know that marriage comes with some significant health benefits? A new study published in Nov. 2022 in the Journal of Aging and Health concluded that being married actually lowers dementia risk.
"There's a correlation between being married in midlife and a lower risk of dementia as an elderly person," lead study author Vegard Skirbekk, senior researcher for the Department of Physical Health and Ageing and the Centre for Fertility and Health at the Norwegian Institute of Public Health (NIPH), said in a statement. Researchers evaluated data from 8,706 middle-aged participants, with 11.6 percent developing dementia and 35.3 percent developing mild cognitive impairment (MCI) after age 70. Interestingly, within this sample, married participants' odds of being diagnosed with either condition were lower than those who were unmarried or divorced.
There are many potential reasons for this correlation, researchers say, including the social aspect. "In several studies, it has been shown that social isolation is related to an increased risk of dementia," Skirbekk said, adding that previous studies have identified marriage as a protective factor for men, but it was "equally important for both men and women" in the current study. Other possible reasons included childlessness in unmarried people—as children "seem to be important" when it comes to dementia risk—or the increased stress associated with divorce.
A lower chance of developing dementia may be reason enough to tie the knot (and keep it tied), but our experts point to even more health-related benefits of marriage. Read on to find out the top four advantages of wedded bliss.
READ THIS NEXT: Scientists Just Found a Surprising Connection Between Grocery Shopping and Dementia.
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Stress is a part of life, and we all feel it to some extent, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). But as Angela Sitka, LMFT with a private practice in Santa Rosa, California, tells Best Life, marriage can help keep this stress under control.
"Research shows that marriage can provide many psychological protective benefits—one of which is possibly reducing the production of stress hormones like cortisol," Sitka explains, pointing to a 2010 study published in the journal Stress. "According to the research, when faced with a stress-inducing situation, individuals who are married produce less cortisol compared to their unmarried counterparts."
Sitka points to potential reasons for this, namely what your partner can provide for you. "Having permanent companionship with a spouse who can provide emotional fulfillment, interpersonal intimacy, and steady support in coping with the stressors of daily life can be a powerful antidote to the stress-filled challenges we face throughout our lives," she says.
Sitka does add that this might not be universal, as research can't confirm that marriage "directly impacts" stress levels, or if other factors come into play. "But the concept makes logical sense that when life is full of stressful situations, having a permanent partner by your side to walk you through the difficult times would make us feel less isolated and more capable of coping, which undoubtedly could reduce our stress levels," she says.
Joni Ogle, LCSW, CSAT, licensed clinical social worker and CEO of The Heights Treatment, also highlights lower cortisol levels as a benefit. "Married couples experience lower amounts of cortisol, or the stress hormone, compared to single people," she explains. "Increased levels of cortisol can hinder the body's ability to regulate inflammation and may result in the progression of many diseases like diabetes and heart disease."
Improved mental health
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Reduced stress is certainly helpful for your mindset, but experts say that marriage can improve your headspace in general.
"Because social support is an incredibly important part of maintaining mental health, being married and having a source of support may reduce feelings of isolation," Beth Ribarsky, PhD, professor of interpersonal communication at the University of Illinois Springfield, tells Best Life. She notes that it's important for this to come from a healthy marriage, as a "troubled relationship" can actually lead to worsened mental and physical health.
Clinical psychologist Carla Marie Manly, PhD, discusses the mental health of married couples, too, which she observes in patients.
"In my clinical practice, I've certainly noted that partners in unsatisfying or high-conflict relationships tend to have more physical and mental health complaints compared to generally well-adjusted couples who attend therapy for 'maintenance," she explains. "Happily married couples tend to engage with each other more emotionally and mentally—both of which are associated with positive mental health."
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Improved physical health
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Because married couples often have better mental health, this often leads to improved physical health, Ogle says.
While not all studies agree on these physical benefits of marriage, according to Manly, married couples are more active, and therefore more physically (and mentally) fit. "I've found that happily married couples tend to be more physically active—often engaging in shared hobbies or joint tasks; this is beneficial as increased activity is associated with improved mental and physical health," she adds.
In a 2016 blog post for Harvard Health Publishing, Robert H. Shmerling, MD, senior faculty editor, discussed the health benefits associated with marriage, pointing out that married people make better behavioral choices when it comes to their physical health.
"Married people may take fewer risks, eat better, and maintain healthier lifestyles, on average, compared with single people," Shmerling wrote. "There is also evidence that married people tend to keep regular doctors' appointments and follow doctors' recommendations more often than single people."
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Overall, research suggests that married people simply live longer. Sitka points to healthier lifestyle habits like decreased rates of smoking and alcohol consumption, and less engagement in "risky behaviors."
"Motivation for engaging in healthy habits could be a result of the increased accountability to another person within a lifelong partnership," Sitka notes, citing a 2020 study on life expectancy and marital status. "Married couples have a shared interest in encouraging one another to engage with healthy habits and behaviors as they rely on one another financially, emotionally, and physically. Having someone invested in your health long-term because they are directly impacted by these habits might encourage a healthy lifestyle, even in moments when you don't feel like doing it for yourself. "
Shmerling highlighted research showing that married people have fewer strokes and survive major operations more often than single people—and they also survive cancer for longer stints of time.
Data presented at the British Cardiovascular Society Conference in 2016 also suggested being married ups your chances of surviving a heart attack and shortens the length of a hospital stay. However, similar to Sitka's point about the study in Stress, Shmerling explains that this is only an association—meaning you can't explicitly say the lower risk is because of marriage. Both the severity of the heart attack and any preexisting health conditions need to be taken into consideration.