People who've exchanged wedding vows tend to be healthier than their single, divorced or widowed peers, but new research shows that health gap may be narrowing.
Interviews with today's never-married men suggest they are healthier than never-married guys were three decades ago, researchers say. And that's helping single males gain some ground, in terms of their health, compared to married people.
"One of the most-often documented facts is that married people are healthier than non-married people, but the difference between married and unmarried people has changed over the past few decades," said the study's lead author, Hui Liu, an assistant professor and sociologist at Michigan State University in East Lansing.
The findings are in the September issue of the Journal of Health and Social Behavior.
Liu said there are two theories as to why married people report better health. One is that being married gives you more access to social support and economic resources. The other is that being divorced or widowed hurts health.
"In general, marriage tends to make people healthier, happier and richer, and that's especially true for men," said Scott Wetzler, vice chairman of psychiatry and behavioral science, and head of the "Supporting Healthy Marriage" program at Montefiore Medical Center in New York City.
But because trends in marriage have changed so dramatically over the past few decades, with more people opting not to marry or marrying at later ages, Liu wanted to assess what, if any, effects these changes might have on physical health.
To analyze these trends, Liu and her colleague, Debra Umberson, reviewed 32 years of data on more than one million Americans from the National Health Interview Survey. Study participants were between the ages of 25 and 80. Health status was self-reported in the survey.
The researchers found that the self-reported health status of never-married adults increased significantly over time. At the same time, the self-reported health status of married women also increased, so the gap between married and never-married women's health stayed about the same. However, never-married men narrowed the health gap between themselves and married men.
"An important potential reason is that never-married men have greater access to social support now than they did in the past. It used to be that having a spouse was important for social support and a social network," explained Liu.
The researchers also found that self-reported health improved for nearly all American blacks, except for those who had been widowed.
People who had been married in the past, including those widowed or divorced, reported declines in their overall health status, according to the study.
"If you get married and then divorced, that will hurt your health," said Liu.
"This study provides confirmation that marriage does tend to make people healthier. They didn't look at the quality of an individual marriage, but that being married is more likely overall to make you happier than not being married," said Wetzler.