Posted on Mar 12, 2021, 4 p.m.
Being in a happy and long-lasting relationship could help you to live a healthy and long life according to research and the results of a recent national longitudinal study published in the Annals of Epidemiology.
Studies have shown that being in a committed romantic relationship is linked to a 49% lower mortality risk, and it is not just about living longer, it is also about being healthier. Research also suggests that a happy romantic relationship may lower the risks of developing diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, dying after heart bypass surgery, and suffering pain and fatigue from breast cancer treatments.
“The magnitude of the effects of marital happiness on health are comparable to those found for dietary recommendations like consumption of fruit and vegetables,” says Janice Kiecolt-Glaser, a psychologist and director of Ohio State University’s Institute for Behavioral Medicine Research.
A recent analysis of marital status and longevity of 280,000 people aged 45+ found that women who never married have a 60% higher risk of dying of cardiovascular disease than those who married, and men who never married have a 32% higher risk of dying of cardiovascular disease than those who married.
“Being married is associated with lower rates of depression, and depression is a notable risk factor for cardiovascular disease because it’s related to poorer heart function, as well as unhealthy behaviors — poorer diets, disturbed sleep, more alcohol use and smoking, and less exercise,” Kiecolt-Glaser says.
It is suggested that part of the explanation for why those are married living longer is a preselection bias, that healthier people are more likely to get married, and another part may be due to the nagging factor of spouses encouraging each other to make better choices, to eat healthier, exercise more, and to stop bad habits like smoking.
Even after controlling for preselection into marriage and health behaviors the positive effects of the happy long-lasting romantic relationship on physical well-being still persisted. Findings bring about interesting questions regarding how these relationships can affect our biology.
For example, Janice Kiecolt-Glaser’s research suggests that a loving relationship may help to reduce chronic inflammation in the body by lowering the levels of stress that we perceive in our daily lives.
“We care about inflammation because it is linked to so many diseases and disorders, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, osteoporosis, arthritis, Alzheimer’s disease and functional decline — and that is only the short list,” she says.
It is possible that a happy long-term romantic relationship may also affect health through hormones, like the cortisol stress hormone, as well as the oxytocin and vasopressin social hormones.
In another study small blister wounds were created on the arms of 74 husbands and wives, the couples were then invited to discuss important personal topics while their levels of oxytocin and vasopressin were monitored. Those who communicated in the most supportive ways were discovered to have had the highest levels of the social hormones and experienced their wounds healing the fastest over the next few days.
Oxytocin is not just the social hormone, it is also called the love hormone because the levels increase when we hug or have intimate contact and this hormone has several direct effects on health such as reducing stress as well as appearing to have anti-inflammatory properties, reducing pain, helping bone growth, and potentially reducing the risk of osteoporosis.
Research suggests that new partners have elevated levels of the love hormone that single people do, and supplementing oxytocin may give us a relationship boost. For example, spraying oxytocin into the nostrils of arguing married couples may help to promote better communication.
There are other more holistic ways to improve your relationship and health such as avoiding hostile behaviors such as criticism, contempt, sarcasm, or eye-rolling, according to marriage researcher John Gottman.
“Create shared humor during conflict, communicating affection and respect in a relationship, staying calm when you are disagreeing with your partner — that allows you to listen and communicate understanding,” says Gottman.
Doing things that are fun together is another important part of ongoing couple happiness, especially for those that have been together for a long time, says psychologist John Malouff.
“Couples need not leave home to jazz up their relationship,” says Malouff. “During the pandemic, they can enhance their love life by trying new positions, in new places around home, at atypical times. Or the two could read a play together. Romeo and Juliet, anyone? Playing new virtual reality or fantasy games together can be fun, too. The key is to do something new that appeals to both individuals.”
“A pleasing relationship can be challenging to maintain over a long time, but the effort is worthwhile because the relationship is likely to have positive effects on mental and physical health,” Malouff says.
As with anything you read on the internet, this article should not be construed as medical advice; please talk to your doctor or primary care provider before making any changes to your wellness routine.
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