En español | Marriage literally can help mend a broken heart, according to a new study that finds married men and women live years longer after coronary bypass surgery compared with unmarried people who have that surgery.
The study published last week finds that married men and women are more than twice as likely to be living 15 years after bypass surgery as their unmarried counterparts.
And if the marriage is satisfying, those long-term survival odds more than triple, the study finds.
"The effect of being married was a lot bigger than I thought it would be," says Kathleen King, professor emerita at the University of Rochester's School of Nursing and an author of the study.
Researchers interviewed 225 patients — with an average age of 60 — who were preparing for coronary bypass surgery between 1987 and 1990. Most of the patients were men and 80 percent were married.
One year after the surgery, the patients were asked to rate their degree of happiness in their marriage. The researchers reviewed death records through 2005 to determine which patients were still alive 15 years after surgery.
They found married men fared better than married women.
Adjusting for age, tobacco use, diabetes and other factors that can affect survival, the researchers found that married men — happy or not — were 2 1/2 times more likely to be living 15 years after the surgery compared with married women, who were twice as likely.
The quality of the marriage made a difference in a man's health, with 83 percent of happily married men still living after 15 years compared with 60 percent of the unhappily married.
For women, an unhappy marriage yields little survival benefit. But for the happily married, the survival rate was nearly fourfold, with 83 percent alive 15 years later.
"Women tend to be more affected by the emotional side of the relationship than the functional side," King says. "An unhappy marriage takes a harder toll on them."
James A. Kulik, professor of psychology at the University of California, San Diego, describes the study as "groundbreaking" because it looked at such a long survival span.
While the study does not explain why marriage is beneficial, he says a reasonable assumption might be that a supportive spouse helps the partner maintain good health habits such as exercising and eating healthy food.
If single people stick to good habits and find support through friends or other social outlets, they may fare better, he says, warning: "Inertia is powerful."
The study was published online Aug. 22 by Health Psychology, a publication of the American Psychological Association.
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Jennifer Anderson is a freelance health and science writer.