MONDAY, July 27, 2009 (HealthDay News) -- Researchers have long thought that marriage is good for your health, but it has been less clear how you will fare if you lose your spouse to divorce or death.
Now, a new study shows that scenario spells trouble, even if you go to the altar once again.
In fact, people who ceased being married at some point in their lives were significantly more likely to have chronic health problems than those who stayed married, researchers found.
It's not clear if the dissolution of a marriage directly affects health or if some other factor is at play. Still, "marital loss does seem to be a powerful force damaging health," said sociologist and study co-author Linda Waite. "And it seems to work about the same way for men and women, and for emotional well-being and physical health."
Sociologists have studied the effects of marriage for some time, trying to figure out whether it's beneficial in a variety of ways. They've found that marriage appears to boost health, especially among men, said Waite, director of the University of Chicago's Center on Aging.
Married men, she said, have better prospects of surviving after surgery and live longer than unmarried men. "There's really tremendous research that shows this helps health," she said.
But what about those who don't stay married? What happens to them? Waite and a colleague decided to try to find out by examining a study of Americans interviewed in 1992, when they were ages 51 to 61. They focused on a sample of 8,652 people.
Their findings are to appear in the September issue of the Journal of Health and Social Behavior.
After adjusting their statistics to account for such factors as race and gender, which could skew the results, the researchers found that those with "marital loss" -- meaning losing a spouse to death or divorce -- had 20 percent more chronic health conditions than people who stayed married.
They also had 23 percent more conditions that limited their ability to get around.
People who remarried were somewhat less likely to have these problems than those who had stayed single but still more problems than those who remained married.
The research did not confirm that the end of a marriage directly lead to poor health. To definitively confirm a cause and effect, researchers would have to randomly assign people to stay married or stop being married and see what happened.
Stress could be the cause of the apparent health problems, Waite said. Future research, she said, will try to pinpoint the exact effects on the body: Does blood pressure go up? Do eating habits get worse? What about dangerous inflammation in the body?
Other important factors include the nature of marriages and their breakups, said marriage researcher Janice Kiecolt-Glaser.
Her research has found that women and men who were recently divorced had weaker immune systems than those who had been divorced longer. "We also found that it mattered if you had chosen the divorce, or if your spouse was the one who asked for it," said Kiecolt-Glaser, director of health psychology at the Ohio State University College of Medicine. "You are better off being the one who walked rather than the one who was left behind."
Also, she said, those who remain preoccupied with thoughts of their former spouse -- either pro or con -- had immune problems.
The American Institute of Stress has more on the importance of emotional and social support.