How Marriage Gets “Under the Skin” to Benefit Health
By Brian Chin
Research shows that married people tend to be healthier than both people who have never been married and people who were previously married (i.e., divorced, widowed, or separated). But it’s less clear how or why married people are in better health. Are there biological and psychological advantages of marriage?
Some research suggests that married people may experience less stress than unmarried individuals or that unmarried individuals may face different sources of stress altogether. For example, previously married individuals tend to be more socially isolated than married individuals, and never married individuals may experience stigma or discrimination based on their non-normative marital status.
So how might the stress associated with being previously or never married get “under the skin” to impact health? To answer this question, our study looked at one physiological system in the body that can be disturbed by stress – the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenocortical (HPA) axis. The HPA-axis plays an important role in the body by helping to regulate a number of key systems, such as those involved in immune and metabolic processes. One way to measure how well the HPA-axis is functioning is to look at one of its key products – cortisol. Cortisol is a hormone that is thought to be released in response to stress in order to help regulate the body and maintain homeostasis. Indeed, increased cortisol output and flatter slopes throughout the day have been linked to a number of negative health outcomes, including hastened cancer mortality and coronary atherosclerosis.
Using data from the Common Cold Project, we examined cortisol in 572 healthy community adults between the ages of 21 and 55. These participants provided saliva samples 7-8 times daily across three separate days that were used to measure cortisol. What we found was that married people demonstrated healthier cortisol patterns than either their never married or previously married counterparts. This difference could not be explained by demographic factors such as age, sex, race, and education, or personality traits like extraversion, neuroticism, and agreeableness. Altogether, these findings suggest that cortisol may be one way that the stressors associated with being never or previously married get into the body to affect health and disease outcomes.
But what about the role of marital quality? Well, a recent meta-analysis suggests that marital quality may not actually matter when it comes to HPA-axis functioning and cortisol. However, it may still be worth searching for happily ever after; the same meta-analysis also suggests that marital quality does affects a number of other important health outcomes.
Overall, our study found that being married was associated with healthier daily cortisol patterns. Importantly, these health benefits of marriage could not be accounted for by demographics or personality differences. This research helps us understand one biological pathway through which marriage may lead to better health.
By Brian Chin.
Brian Chin is a 2nd year Ph.D. student in the Department of Psychology at Carnegie Mellon University. His research focuses on how psychosocial factors such as stress and social relationships can affect health and well-being. Brian can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Chin, B., Murphy, M. L., Janicki-Deverts, D., Cohen, S., & Denise, C. (2017). Marital status as a predictor of diurnal salivary cortisol levels and slopes in a community sample of healthy adults. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 78, 68-75.