A massive new study by Keele University in the UK has found that unmarried people, whether they are divorced, widowed, or never married, are 42 percent more likely to die from cardiovascular disease and 55 percent more likely to die from a stroke.
Furthermore, their data suggests that unmarried adults are 16 percent more likely to develop coronary artery disease and 42 percent more likely to die from it.
The researchers note that well-known risk factors – like age, sex, high blood pressure, elevated cholesterol, smoking, and diabetes – still account for about 80 percent of cardiovascular disease, with the other 20 percent remaining unclear.
“Our work suggests that marital status should be considered in patients with or at risk of developing cardiovascular disease,” senior author Mamas Mamas, Professor of Cardiology at Keele University, said in a statement.
Their research, published in the journal Heart, was a meta-study drawing on 34 previous studies that contained the relevant data. In total, the work accounts for over 2 million people aged between 42 and 77 from Europe, North America, the Middle East, and Asia.
“Our findings suggest that marriage has a protective effect on cardiovascular diseases, however, this could be attributed to the additional social and emotional support provided by having a spouse,” added lead researcher Chun Wai Wong.
Just like any health study, you should treat the raw correlations with a pinch of caution. Being unmarried might not necessarily be the risk factor in itself. It could be, for example, that unmarried people are more likely to smoke cigarettes or eat poorly than married people.
Equally, the research doesn’t take into account long-term cohabiting couples, which could be common among some social groups, such as people in same-gender relationships.
Nevertheless, this study joins mounting evidence that social forces, like loneliness or marriage, can massively affect cardiovascular health in old age.
Professor Kevin McConway, an independent expert and Emeritus Professor of Applied Statistics at The Open University, described the new study as “certainly very large, and competently performed and interesting,” but believes the link might not be as clear-cut as headlines make it out to be – this isn't a "love is all you need" kind of scenario.
“Even if the differences really are a consequence of marital status in some way, this new study cannot throw much light on how that could work,” he added. “The researchers do suggest several possible mechanisms – for example, support from a spouse in several different ways, negative effects from the loss of a spouse, lower chance of marriage to begin with if one’s health is already poor. But this new study has no new way of investigating the evidence for any of these”