Diabetes risk 'surprisingly lower' in older men who are unhappily married

New study finds that compared with happily married peers, men in unhappy marriages are less likely to develop diabetes, and if they do, it arises later and is better managed.

We assume people in happy marriages would be healthy, but surprisingly a new study has something else to say. The study by an associate professor in sociology at Michigan State University in East Lansing says as compared with happily married peers, men who are in unhappy marriages are less likely to develop diabetes. Even if they develop diabetes, it is at a later date in life and is better managed.

In 2012 there were 29.1 million Americans - or 9.3 percent of the population - living with diabetes. This figure includes 8.1 million undiagnosed people. However, among older Americans, the prevalence of diabetes is much higher: 25.9 percent of adults aged 65 and over - 11.8 million seniors - are thought to have the disease.

In this context, the goal of the study was to examine the link between marital quality and both the risk of developing diabetes and how well it is managed after it develops in later life.

Using data from the first two waves of the National Social Life, Health and Aging Project (NSHAP), the study was conducted with an objective to examine the link between marital quality and the risk of developing diabetes as well as how well it is managed once a person develops it. Researchers analyzed data from 1,228 married men and women who were aged 57-85 at the time of the first wave survey that was conducted in 2005/06 and second wave survey conducted in 2010/11. A total of 389 of the participants had diabetes.

Data collection was based on a survey that included items on satisfaction with current relationship, behavior with partner, intimacy, attitude to partner, and sexual contact. When the survey data was compared with diabetes information collected from the participants, the surprising discovery was that for men, negative marital quality was linked to lower risk of developing diabetes and better management of the disease once diagnosed. However, this was not true for women.

One explanation might be that, because diabetes is a condition that needs careful and constant monitoring, persistent nagging from a wife might boost a husband's health just through effect on health behavior, although it may also appear to increase marital strain over time.

Prof. Liu suggests this could be that women are more sensitive to marital quality and thus more likely to experience this as a positive effect on health.

These results also prompt questions about how to define negative and positive marital quality, and to what extent they may differ between the sexes.

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