February 8, 2005

 

A positive marital relationship is good for your health

A story published today in the Miami Herald reports claims that the musical group Sweet was close to the mark on its old pop hit Love Is Like Oxygen. Some may recall the song's hook: ``Love is like oxygen / Not enough and you're gonna die.''

That may be a tad dramatic but a growing body of evidence suggests finding the right mate could boost your physical and mental health -- and help you live longer.

''Marriage is good for both men and women,'' says Dr. Janice Kiecolt-Glaser, professor and director of the psychiatry department at Ohio State University.

For the past 20 years, Ohio State has been studying 90 couples from the time they were newlyweds to learn more about how personal relationships affect health. Specifically, the study has been exploring how stress alters the levels of hormones in the blood, which affect the body's immune system.

The upshot?

Positive marital relations translated into lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol. The lower the cortisol, the faster compounds are delivered to a wound to kick-start the healing process. A correlated study of older married couples -- married an average of 42 years -- found lower cortisol levels helped reduce the risk of infectious diseases and perhaps cancer.

Conversely, rocky relationships yielded negative health consequences.

Arguments between husbands and wives weakened their immune system, making them more susceptible to illness, the study found. In revisiting these couples 10 years later, the researchers found that elevated hormone levels from the earlier studies had been the best predictors of divorce -- 19 percent of the couples had split, all of whom had higher levels for three of four stress hormones monitored: epinephrine (adrenaline), norepinephrine, adrenocorticotropic hormone and cortisol.

If you do have a happy marriage, however, the health benefits are not shared equally.

''Men get a lot more out of marriage than women do in terms of an extra boost,'' Kiecolt-Glaser said. ``This is probably because women have broader social support networks. For men, the wife is the major confidante and if they are not married many may not have a confidante.''

Ask Ken Chaitman. A country songwriter living in Aventura, Chaitman, 73, was married for 30 years to Marlene, who died from cancer in 1983. After 10 years of the single life -- ''it had no meaning'' -- he wed his current wife, Meryl, 12 years ago. Nothing compares to marriage, he says. ``It's a beautiful part of my life.

''You know that song You're Nobody Till Somebody Loves You? It's so true. Even though I'm a male chauvinist,'' Chaitman teases. ``behind every successful man is a good woman. . . . When she passed away I wrote a song called Had Love, Want More.''

While men benefit more from a happy marriage, an unhappy marriage will take a deeper toll on women, the Ohio State studies found.

Women showed greater sensitivity to negative marital interaction than men and demonstrated more detailed memories of marital squabbles.

''The broad message is that a bad marriage hurts a woman worse,'' Kiecolt-Glaser said.

Additionally, ``women tend to get men to pay more attention to their health, tend to feed them better, so men make out better in the relationship because the woman is looking out for their health more.''

Asha Jattan, 33, chuckles over that. The Homestead grade-school social worker is set to wed her fiancÚ Shannon Sejeck in March. She says she knows he has improved healthwise as a result of their year-long relationship.

''I'm always pushing him to go to a doctor, to a dentist,'' she said. ``I'm making the appointments and am on top of him to do those things. When he was by himself he didn't do. He hadn't been to a dentist or doctor since he can remember.''

But being married can have its drawbacks.

Married men are more likely to become obese than never-wed or previously married men, a 1997 Cornell University study found. This, naturally, could compromise the health boost that marriage provides, the report said.

Nevertheless, it's safe to say that those who've said their ''I do's'' can breathe a sigh of relief. And while marriage may be the ideal state, having a partner is a plus, suggests Robert Johnson, chairman and professor of sociology at the University of Miami. (This gives you six days until Valentine's Day to start polishing those opening lines.)

''First, the theoretical rationale is that marriage, or being in a romantic relationship, is a highly valued social status so it will make people feel good about themselves because of the value society places on it. You feel bad about yourself if you're not in a relationship,'' Johnson said.

''There are also resources that people bring to relationships. It's not just financial. Interpersonal relationships help people weather the stresses of modern life better. They are less vulnerable to illness, anxiety and depression,'' he adds.

But what about all the other romantic permutations of modern life? Gay relationships? Affairs?

Studies on these groupings are hard to come by.

''That's not an easy question to answer through research,'' Kiecolt-Glaser said. 'I have a little difficulty seeing myself putting up ads that say: `So, you're having an affair? Call us so we can talk about your health!' That's how we typically recruit research participants but I shudder to think of the responses you might get to that one.''

That said, she cites a 2002 British study that found the risk of a heart attack during sex was considerably higher during an affair. The study indicated that 75 percent of those who died during sex were having extramarital affairs.

''The reason is probably that sex is one form of relatively mild exercise, and you're adding a burst of stress hormones like adrenaline at the same time,'' Kiecolt-Glaser theorizes.

Not that Eve Ferguson cares about studies. She's 44, single after a seven-year marriage folded in 1997, and can tell you she's fed up with her situation.

''It's much worse without having a partner,'' she says. ``Even people who have pets are healthier because of having an outlet for their emotions. I know that I was happier being married and happiness translates to healthiness.''

Ferguson, an art historian and writer, left South Beach last summer to move back to Washington, D.C., in hopes of landing a better career and a man -- not necessarily in that order. In the six years she lived in South Florida, Ferguson said she often found that straight black men were not interested in black women.

``It's hard to find a black man that is interested in a black woman. It's not hard to find a black man interested in a white woman.''

The situation hasn't improved in D.C., but Ferguson says she's not giving up.

Single people must establish a network of friends with whom they can talk, Kiecolt-Glaser advises. ``If they are socially isolated that's bad news.''

Meanwhile, gay or interracial relationships can carry baggage but those involved say the good feelings outweigh people's comments.

Jattan , a self-described dark-skinned black woman, says she never expected to find herself in an interracial relationship. But she fell for Sejeck last year and he's a blue-eyed strawberry blond.

''We get some stares because we are at the ends of the spectrum, polar opposites,'' she says. ``But we're fortunate because where we live there is so much diversity. We made a heart-to-heart connection. You push away people that could be good for you if you stop at the exterior.''

Architect Colgate Darden, 41, of Miami, met his boyfriend three years ago at Martini Tuesdays, a SoBe Social Club traveling party for gay men.

Although Darden says ''I can feel good when I'm single,'' he feels better when he's with someone and believes that being in a relationship can improve one's health.

'You don't have to be part of the singles' rat race,'' Darden said.

Says Johnson, ``The same benefits [of straight relationships] will translate well into gay and lesbian populations. For gay men, being in a relationship reduces the risk of exposure to HIV; also reduces risks of behaviors involved in clubbing and drug use.''

It's clearly not 1974 anymore.

''In the gay community having a partner was stigmatized in the free-sex era,'' Johnson says. ``That has changed now. Marriage-type relationships are becoming more valued in the gay community than in the sexual revolution, when married relationships were seen as oppressive. Now people are suing to get the right to marry