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August 11, 2008 

Married Adults Report Better Health,

But Singles Are Catching Up

By Amy Sutton, Contributing Writer
Health Behavior News Service

For years, researchers have known that adults who have swapped rings say they are healthier than their never-married peers are. According to a recent study, though, singles are catching up when it comes to good health.

"Married people are better off than never-married people in terms of health status, but the gap has narrowed over time," said lead author Hui Liu, an assistant professor and sociologist at Michigan State University in East Lansing.

The authors used 32 years of data from the National Health Interview Survey to analyze trends in marital status and health among about 1.1 million participants: married, widowed, divorced, separated and never-married adults ages 25 to 80.

The study appears in the September issue of the Journal of Health and Social Behavior.

Liu and her co-author found that over the past three decades, self-reports of overall health among never-married adults improved significantly, making the discrepancy in health between married and never married less pronounced.

This narrowing health gap between the married and the never married applies only to men, but not women, Liu said.

One reason for this trend is that today's society might offer never-married men "greater access to social resources and support" that were in the past primarily found in a spouse, the authors noted.

However, Susan Averett, Ph.D., professor of economics and business at Lafayette College in Easton, Pa., said that the "data cannot tell us definitively if marriage is the cause of the change in self-reported health or some other unobserved factor" is at work.

"Given the rise in cohabitation over the time period they study and the lack of evidence on how cohabiting affects health relative to marriage — since cohabiting is generally less stable and shorter term — means that we miss an interesting piece of the puzzle," said Averett, who had no affiliation with the study.

Over time, self-reports of health also improved for African-Americans, Liu said. Except for the widowed, all groups reported showed improvements in self-rated health, a reflection of advances in health among African-Americans in the United States in general, she said.

In contrast, the study also pointed to an emerging trend toward worsening health in those who had previously been married in comparison to their married peers, especially widows or widowers, who experienced the most significant declines.

In 1972, the widowed were about as likely to report being in good health as the married, but in 2003, they were 7 percent less likely to report good health than their married counterparts were.

One explanation, Liu suggested, is that the stress of widowhood leads to greater health problems for widowers, compared to their married peers.

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The Journal of Health and Social Behavior is the quarterly journal of the American Sociological Association.

Liu H, Umberson DJ. The times they are a changin': marital status and health differentials from 1972 to 2003. J Health Soc Behav 49(3), 2008.

About the American Sociological Association
The American Sociological Association (www.asanet.org), 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 to and use of sociology by society.