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Your Marital Status and Your Health

Marital status can affect women’s health in a number of ways. A University of Arizona study suggests that women who marry later in life may gain a few extra pounds, while older women who are undergoing a divorce or separation may lose a few pounds and see improvements in health habits.

“Earlier studies on marriage and divorce have shown that marriage is usually associated with a longer lifespan and fewer health problems, while divorce is associated with higher mortality,” said the study’s lead author, Dr. Randa Kutob, an associate professor of family and community medicine and director of the UA College of Medicine’s Office of Continuing Medical Education.

“The interesting thing we found in our study is that with divorce in postmenopausal women, it’s not all negative, at least not in the short term,” she said.

Since many studies on marriage focus on younger women, Kutob and her collaborators were interested in the effects of marital transitions on older women, who are more susceptible to chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes.

The researchers’ findings are based on data from the Women’s Health Initiative’s observational study. The Women’s Health Initiative was a prevention study initiated by the National Institutes of Health in 1991 to address health issues in postmenopausal women. More than 160,000 women ages 50 to 79 participated in the initiative’s three clinical trials and observational study over the course of 15 years.

Using data from the initiative, researchers looked at postmenopausal women ages 50 to 79 over a three-year period. The women fell into one of four groups: those who went from single to married or in a self-defined marriage-like relationship over the course of three years; those who started out married but went through a separation or divorce; and those whose marital status did not change over the three-year period (they either started out and remained married or started out and remained unmarried).

Researchers looked at a number of health measures, including weight, waist circumference and blood pressure, as well as health indicators such as diet, exercise, smoking and alcohol consumption.

All of the women who started the study unmarried (either they had never been married, were divorced or were widowed) saw some weight gain over the three-year period, which is not uncommon for women as they age, Kutob said.

However, those who went from unmarried to married gained slightly more weight than those who remained single — on the order of two or more additional pounds than their unmarried counterparts.

While the reason for the extra weight gain is not entirely clear, one theory on marriage-related weight gain at any age is that it may come from couples sitting down more often together for regular, sometimes larger, meals, Kutob said.

“Potentially it’s portion size, because it doesn’t seem to be related to their food choices,” she said.