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Staying Healthy Being Married: Differences by Gender, Race and Income

The couple that marries and stays married will increase their longevity and reduce their risk of chronic illness later in life. However, the effects of marriage on health tend to differ for men and women. Now research is showing that the quality of the parents’ relationship with each other can affect (i.e., increase or decrease) an adolescent’s health risk behaviors, and may be more powerful than just marital status.

Men, in general, physically benefit from the transition to being married. Their health status improves, negative physical symptoms decrease, and positive behaviors increase, for the most part, when they get married, compared to their still-unmarried peers. Specifically, one recent study of low-income unmarried parents found that fathers who married their partners in the year following the birth of their child were healthier (based on a global self-assessment of health) than fathers choosing to remain single.
However, the health effects of marriage are not all positive for men. Over time, married men are more likely to become overweight or obese, and exercise less frequently than their unmarried counterparts. Research indicates that any ‘disruption’ in marital history shortens the lifespan significantly more for men than for women and undermines men’s self-reported health. Studies show that men who are divorced experience health risks equal to smoking a pack of cigarettes a day.
Women. While men’s health shows immediate benefits from just being married, the health advantages for women appear to increase with the duration of the marriage, which may also reflect women’s greater sensitivity to the quality of the relationship itself. For each year of marriage, a woman’s risk of dying prematurely decreases. Women‘s health generally appears to be more susceptible to marital discord than men’s health. For women, poor relationship quality seems to be associated with increased risk of premature mortality and an increased risk of heart disease. Recent studies now show that while women who marry are thinner than their peers and potentially healthier to begin with (a selection effect), women’s body mass index also increases once married, albeit modestly, just as it does for men.
Racial/ethnic Factors
Once income levels have been adjusted, the protective benefits of marriage are as significant for African American couples as for Caucasian couples. The effects of marriage, divorce, and widowhood on health are the same across major racial/ethnic groups, including African Americans. Research finds no differences in health outcomes for African Americans who marry, in comparison to Caucasian populations in the U.S. ; however, it is well-known that marriage rates for African Americans are now significantly lower than for Caucasians or Latinos. This demographic fact may help to account for some part of the greater health disparities experienced by African Americans as the following studies suggest:
• The existing higher mortality risk for African Americans identified by major health surveys, may be due to lower rates of marriage for African Americans, as approximately only 38 percent of African Americans are married compared to 60 percent of Caucasians.
• The higher percentage of African American men raised in families without two biological parents may account for at least part of the stark gap in longevity between African American and Caucasian men, as only 35 percent of African American children live with both biological parents, compared to 75 percent of Caucasian children.
Ten research papers exploring the connections between marriage and health among African Americans have been commissioned by the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation, DHHS, to study the relationships between marriage and chronic & acute health conditions, relationship quality & mental and physical health, life course effects of marriage on health, and gender differences in the relationship of marriage and health. The publication date for the collection of research papers is spring 2010. Disparities in health outcomes for Hispanic populations are well-documented, and known to vary by cultural and ethnic origins. There is a lack of research examining specific associations between marital quality or transitions out of marriage, and health outcomes. However, it is known that being married and living with the father serves as a protective factor for birth weight and other birth outcomes in Hispanic families.
The financial stability that comes with marriage also seems to have a positive impact on health. Marriage is well known to provide financial benefits, and these financial advantages appear to directly influence physical health by providing greater access to health care and other social services. Research suggests that the greater access to health and other services appears to be especially important in explaining marriage’s impact on increasing women’s health benefits . For both men and women, studies show that marriage is associated with increased access to private health insurance, which leads to higher quality of care, reduced average hospital stays, and access to beneficial nursing home care near the end of life.
Low-Income Couples
Research indicates that marriage protects the health of low-income couples just as it does for those with higher incomes. In a recent national survey, low-income married couples reported to be healthier on all measures than their never-married or divorced low-income peers. These measures include: health status, reporting of health conditions like back pain, headaches, serious psychological distress, and reported lower levels of limitations in daily living activities and risk behaviors such as smoking and exercise . However one exception is health insurance. Unmarried, low-income mothers are more likely to have health insurance and health care access through their eligibility for public programs, such as Medicaid, WIC, etc. underlining the importance of understanding how marriage benefits may differ across different contexts and sub-populations.