Need a new drug? Try marriage, if you have a heart condition. In a new study, researchers discovered married folks are more than three times as likely to survive the initial three months after surgery as single people.
“That’s a dramatic difference in survival rates for single people, during the most critical post-operative recovery period,” says Ellen Idler, lead author of the study, which appears in the March issue of the Journal of Health and Social Behavior.
“We found that marriage boosted survival whether the patient was a man or a woman.”
Although the most dramatic benefits come within the first three months, researchers found the protective effect of marriage continues for up to five years following coronary artery bypass surgery.
“The findings underscore the important role of spouses as caregivers during health crises,” Idler says. “And husbands were apparently just as good at caregiving as wives.”
The health protective effects of marriage have been observed for nearly 150 years. The evidence keeps accumulating that the widowed, never married, and divorced have higher risks of mortality.
Much of the research, however, has looked broadly across populations during an entire lifespan, or relies only on medical records.
“We wanted to zero in on a particular window of time: a major health crisis,” Idler says, “and we wanted to add the in-person element of patient interviews, in addition to the full record of their medical history and hospitalization.”
Investigators followed more than 500 patients undergoing either emergency or elective coronary bypass surgery. All of the study subjects were interviewed prior to surgery. Data on survival status of the patients were obtained from the National Death Index.
While the data are inconclusive for what caused the striking difference in the three-month survival rate, the interviews provided some possible clues.
“The married patients had a more positive outlook going into the surgery, compared with the single patients,” Idler says. “When asked whether they would be able to manage the pain and discomfort, or their worries about the surgery, those who had spouses were more likely to say, yes.”
Patients who survived more than three months were approximately 70 percent more likely to die during the next five years if they were single. An analysis of the data showed that smoking history accounted for the lower survival rates in the single patients over this longer term.
“The lower likelihood that married persons were smokers suggests that spousal control over smoking behavior produces long-term health benefits,” Idler says.
When it comes to healing hearts, marriage may be powerful medicine, but it’s in increasingly short supply, Idler says, which does not bode well for aging baby boomers.
Experts say that barely half of U.S. adults are currently married, the lowest percentage ever.