Marital strain appears to matter for health as individuals age

Researchers have found that marital strain accelerates the typical decline in self-rated physical health that occurs over time and that this adverse effect is greater at older ages.

As men and women age, they become increasingly vulnerable to marital stress, according to a team of sociologists from the University of Texas-Austin and Ohio State University. Their findings appear in an article on marital quality and health over the life course in this month's Journal of Health and Social Behavior, a publication of the American Sociological Association.

While previous research has shown that the married population exhibits better health than the unmarried, it is not the case that any marriage is better than no marriage at all when it comes to health, according to this research.

"Unhappily married individuals have yet another reason to identify marital difficulties and seek to improve marital quality," said Debra Umberson, University of Texas-Austin, the study's lead researcher. "Their very health may depend on it."

For the study, the researchers examined longitudinal data from the period of 1986-94 from the Americans' Changing Lives panel survey to determine how positive and negative aspects of marital quality affect physical health and whether these effects vary with age or gender. The research used three waves of interviews with 1,049 individuals between ages 24-96. In addition to questions about marital satisfaction and self-rated health (excellent, good, fair, poor), subjects answered questions on life course and sociodemographic variables (e.g., gender, race, education).

Major findings from the study include the following:

  • All else being equal, the absence of marital negativity may benefit health, but only at older ages (i.e., after age 70). Similarly, all else being equal, marital negativity may be detrimental to health, but only at older ages (i.e., after age 70).
  • There is no evidence of gender differences on the effects of marital quality on health at any age.
  • Negative marital experiences are more important to the health trajectories of older individuals than to younger ones.
  • There was no evidence that a change in health over time affected marital quality over time.

"While self-rated health tends to decline over time for the sample as a whole, it appears that marital strain accelerates this decline," said Umberson. "Moreover, marital strain appears to matter for health as individuals age."

The researchers state that age is the primary factor in marital quality's impact on health over time. Several reasons for this effect include:

  1. Marital difficulties are a key source of stress, which can undercut vulnerable immune systems;
  2. Marital strain appears to have a cumulative effect on health, much like smoking cigarettes does; and
  3. As individuals age, they lose key social figures in their lives and rely more on their spouse as a source of meaning in their lives.

Clinicians and policymakers who believe that marital quality is not a significant factor in health need to understand that negative aspects of marriage appear to become more consequential as individuals age.

This research was made possible by support from the National Institute on Aging at the National Institutes of Health.

The Journal of Health and Social Behavior is a peer-reviewed medical sociology journal that publishes articles that apply sociological concepts and methods to the understanding of health and illness and the organization of medicine and health care.

The American Sociological Association, founded in 1905, is a non-profit membership association dedicated to serving sociologists in their work, advancing sociology as a science and profession, and promoting the contributions and use of sociology to society.

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