More marriage, more healthy habits

Nicole M. King
5 January 2015
Reproduced with Permission
Family Edge

The News Story - 2015 journey to whole health: 3 steps to lasting New Year's resolutions

It's the time for New Year's Resolutions, and most of us Americans will make the resolutions - once again - to lose a few extra inches off the waistline, drink fewer cocktails, and eat a bit less red meat. Dr. Tasneem Bhatia writes at the Huffington Post that if Americans really want to make those health resolutions stick, we need more than a few tweaks in behavior.

"The journey to whole health is a part of that planning as we all continue to navigate the changing landscape of trying to be 'healthy,'" writes Dr. Bhatia. Her strategies to improve "whole health" include such things as journaling, meditation, and yoga. Also on the list is such common-sense advice as eating better and sleeping more, coupled with medical strategies such as "The Daily Detox," "Balance Your Bacteria," and "Rev Up Your Liver."

What crucial piece of information do Dr Bhatia and other health experts usually leave off such lists? Ringing in the New Year with a wedding ring, researchers have discovered, is perhaps the most important strategy to adopt in healthy living.

The New Research - The healthy habits of the married

As they struggle to contain spiralling health-care costs, both government officials and medical experts are finding new reasons to encourage Americans to practice healthy personal habits. But in two new studies, researchers adduce evidence that - official preachments notwithstanding - only the country's married couples are likely to adopt such habits.

In the first study, completed in 2013 at Indiana and Arizona State Universities, researchers examine Americans' health behaviors in the adverse economic circumstances created by the meltdown of 2008. The researchers focus particularly on five health behaviors: checking the ingredient label when buying food, choosing foods to eat based on health value, vigorous exercising regularly, abstaining from cigarettes, and regularly using seat belts when driving. To assess these behaviors, the researchers probe data collected in 2005 and again in 2011 from 3,984 mid-life Americans in a Midwestern community-based sample.

The overall finding of the Indiana and Arizona State scholars is reassuring: "overall, participants demonstrated higher levels of all five health behaviors after the economic downturn as compared to their pre-recession levels." However, when the researchers peer more closely at the data, they uncover evidence that the overall improvement in health habits actually hides deterioration of these habits in groups most vulnerable to financial difficulty. Indeed, the numbers reveal the "negative impact" of "financial strain" on all of the five health habits studied except seat-belt use. The researchers plausibly view this finding as consistent with "recent reviews conclud[ing] that poor economic conditions increase the risk of psychological and behavioral morbidity."

But not all men and women are equally exposed to that risk. In their simplest bivariate analysis, the researchers discover that "those who were married . . . were more likely to engage in all five healthy behaviors" than were unmarried peers.

The importance of wedlock in fostering good health habits also stands out in a study completed in 2014 by an international team of scholars from five universities (Harvard, University College London, Kings College London, University of Manchester, and Tohoku University of Sendai, Japan). By analyzing data collected between 1999 and 2004 from a nationally representative sample of 4,014 Americans age 60 and over, this international team highlights the role of social relationships - especially marriage - in incubating favorable health habits and fostering avoidance of bad habits.

Like the authors of the Indiana-Arizona State 2013 study, the international team responsible for the 2014 study examines the social context for smoking and regular exercise. But the other two health habits this team looks at - visiting the dentist regularly and controlling alcohol consumption - are different from those attracting the interest of the Indiana-Arizona State scholars. And like the Indiana-Arizona State scholars, the international team responsible for the 2014 study soon find themselves homing in on intact marriage as a predictor of beneficial health practices and a protection against harmful practices.

The researchers conclude that the men and women in their study who were "married or living with a partner . . . were more likely to report at least moderate physical activity, to have been seen by a dentist and to be non-smokers in the bivariate analyses" than were peers who were unmarried and living alone. The bivariate analysis also indicates that "heavy drinking was also more prevalent among those not living with a partner" than it was among those who were married or living with a partner.

Unlike the Indiana-Arizona State researchers, who conclude their study with calls for interventions and public campaigns designed to directly improve individuals' health habits, the international team behind this new study urge their colleagues to consider the possibility that "strengthening social relationships would have a significant impact on . . . people's health behaviors and ultimately improve their health." If the social relations receiving primary attention are those involving chapel bells and vows, then this international team is truly on the path that leads to individual - and social - health!