Newswise — A stable, long-term marriage can be good for your health, but divorce or widowhood leave a lasting scar on the health of middle-aged and older people, according to a new study. Remarriage seems to reduce but not erase the damage done by losing a marriage, and those who remain single after a marriage ends show consistently worse health than those who remarried.
People who have never married are disadvantaged on some measures of health compared to the divorced or widowed, but do better on others, the researchers found.
"We argue that losing a marriage through divorce or widowhood is extremely stressful and that a high-stress period takes a toll on health," said study co-author Linda Waite said. "Think of health as money in the bank. Think of a marriage as a mechanism for 'saving' or adding to health. Think of divorce as a period of very high expenditures."
Waite is the Lucy Flower Professor of Sociology and director of the Center on Aging at the University of Chicago.
The study looked at four key aspects of midlife health: chronic conditions, mobility limitations, self-rated health and depressive symptoms. Waite and colleagues found that a significant disruption in marital stability, such as divorce or spousal death, often has a prolonged impact, negatively affecting all four areas.
The researchers drew data from the Health and Retirement Study, a nationally representative, longitudinal study that looked at individuals age 50 and above. They analyzed data from 8,652 white, black and Hispanic people between the ages of 51 and 61. The study appears in the September issue of the Journal of Health and Social Behavior.
"While the saying goes, 'Better to have loved and lost,' multiple divorces create multiple prolonged stressful conditions and undermine personal empowerment — far worse than never marrying," said stress-management specialist Debbie Mandel. "A good marriage is like making deposits in your health savings account for midlife and the golden years."
Those who never married fared better than did currently married individuals with a history of divorce or spousal loss. Still, while the researchers did not find a difference in the number of chronic conditions compared to those who were currently married, they did find significantly more depressive symptoms and mobility limitations and significantly worse self-rated health than they did in married individuals.
While the study was strong due to its large sample size, detailed health history and clear marital data, Waite and Mandel agreed that its biggest limitation was that it did not look at marital quality.
The Journal of Health and Social Behavior is a quarterly journal of the American Sociological Association. Contact Jackie Cooper, Media Relations Officer, at
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Hughes ME, Waite LJ. Marital biography and health at mid-life. J Health Social Behav 50(3), 2009.