Did you know that men who are married – happily or not – are generally far healthier than their unmarried buddies? A man’s physical health apparently benefits simply from the state of being married, whether or not he rates it as a good marriage.
But a woman’s overall health can be significantly threatened by trouble at home, according to researchers at the University of Utah.(1) Women respond to unhappy marriages by being three times more likely to develop metabolic syndrome – a cluster of serious cardiac risk factors that can lead to heart disease.
Women who report high levels of marital strain also report depression, high blood pressure, high LDL (bad) cholesterol, obesity and other signs of metabolic syndrome.
The Utah researchers recruited 280 couples married an average of 20 years. Each couple was assessed on:
- the positive aspects of their marriage, (emotional warmth, mutual support, ability to confide secrets to each other)
- the negative aspects (arguments, feelings of hostility, frequency and severity of disagreements)
- symptoms of depression
Couples with pre-existing heart disease were excluded. Researchers found that both men and women were more likely to display symptoms of depression if they reported marital strain. However, men did not have a related increase in other health problems. Women, on the other hand, saw their risk of metabolic syndrome go up when they experienced more negative aspects of marriage compared to women with more positive aspects.
Happily married women face a significantly lower risk of developing metabolic syndrome than their unhappily married counterparts. But women who are widowed had nearly six times the risk of developing metabolic syndrome.
What about single, divorced or women who are “between husbands”? After accounting for a variety of factors, there were no statistically significant differences between happily married women and unmarried women.
Women who were consistently dissatisfied with their marriage had three times the risk of developing metabolic syndrome compared with happily-married women. But this finding didn’t hold for women who were only dissatisfied with their marriage for a short-term period. Women who reported marital satisfaction following only one assessment had a risk of developing metabolic syndrome similar to that of the happily married women. The Utah researchers wrote:
“Our data showing that marital quality predicts subsequent metabolic syndrome suggest the clinical utility of assessing marital quality as an integral part of the patient’s social history.”
Dr. Sheldon Tobe of The Heart & Stroke Foundation also found that women are more physically affected by relationships than men are – but that these effects can actually work to our benefit. His research showed that a happy marriage could help cancel out the blood pressure-raising effects of a very stressful job:
“We found that women who had a supportive spouse at home were more immune to the effects of job strain. However, people who had less supportive spouses or who experienced stresses from their relationships at home were much more sensitive to the effects of job strain.”
Find out more from Mayo Clinic about the symptoms, causes and prevention of metabolic syndrome.
© Carolyn Thomas www.myheartsisters.org
(1) Nancy Henry, Tim Smith. University of Utah. Presented to the 2009 American Psychosomatic Society’s annual meeting, Chicago.
NOTE from CAROLYN: I wrote much more about women’s lived experience in my book “A Woman’s Guide to Living with Heart Disease“ (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017). You can ask for it at your local library or favourite bookshop, or order it online (paperback, hardcover or e-book) at Amazon, or order it directly from my publisher, Johns Hopkins University Press (use the code HTWN to save 20% off the list price).