Thursday, December 16, 2004

Married adults are more likely to be healthier — physically and mentally — than divorced, widowed, cohabiting or never-married adults, a new federal report says.

Regardless of age, sex, race, education, income or nationality, married adults were least likely to be in poor health, suffer serious psychological distress and smoke or drink heavily, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) says in its new report, which reviews health data gathered from more than 127,000 adults from 1999 to 2002.

The only category in which married adults fared poorly was weight — and this was primarily because married men were more likely to be heavier than other men, the study says.

“[Husbands] are well-fed. But they don’t smoke,” said Charlotte Schoenborn, a researcher at the NCHS’ Division of Health Interview Statistics and author of the report.

The report doesn’t speculate on why married adults are in better health. However, many researchers say that marriage has a “protective” effect.

“Wives are especially good at what social scientists call ‘social support’ and ordinary people call ‘nagging,’ ” said columnist Maggie Gallagher, who heads the District-based Institute for Marriage and Public Policy.

“And it turns out the nagging works: People who are reminded to do healthy things like wear your seat belts, eat vegetables, exercise or go to the doctor, actually do them more often than people who aren’t reminded,” said Mrs. Gallagher, who, with University of Chicago sociology professor Linda J. Waite, wrote the 2000 book “The Case for Marriage: Why Married People are Happier, Healthier and Better Off Financially.”

“When you’re married, you have somebody to be accountable to … and I see this even in marriages that are stormy — sometimes, they’re stormy because of someone caring about a health issue,” said Illinois therapist Michele Weiner-Davis, who is nationally known for her “divorce-busting” books and materials.

In addition, Mrs. Weiner-Davis said the “emotional connectedness” in marriage, plus its likelihood for sexual satisfaction, often leads to a sense of well-being in husbands and wives. So, saying that married people are the healthiest “seems to me to be an obvious truth,” she said.

One caveat in the NCHS report is that federal interviewers asked for — but did not confirm — the participants’ marital status and didn’t confirm whether they were legally married, the report says. Researchers also don’t look at whether the data included same-sex couples, Mrs. Schoenborn added.

However, the surveys clearly categorize adults who are “living with a partner,” and the data shows that those who cohabit are not nearly as healthy as married adults.

In general, the report says, cohabiting adults “most closely resembled those of divorced or separated adults.” Of all the categories, widowed, divorced and separated adults generally fared the worst on health measures.

Separately, a group of 140 pro-marriage academics, researchers, activists and policy-makers are issuing a statement today on the next steps of the grass-roots marriage movement.

Family breakdown “has largely stopped in its tracks,” says the “What Next for the Marriage Movement?” statement, which is being released by the Institute for American Values (IAV). Divorce rates are edging down, teen pregnancy and birthrates have declined dramatically, and more black children are living in married-couple homes, it adds.

IAV President David Blankenhorn credited the 10-year-old “Marriage Movement” program for staving off divorce rates.

What’s still needed, the report says, is an expanded marriage movement, more marriage education and new laws that encourage premarital education and discourage “unnecessary” divorce.

To help, substantial federal marriage funds might be on the way.

After years of delay, Congress appears likely to renew the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) welfare law. The Bush administration has called for as much as $300 million a year in pro-marriage grants, and the new law is likely to include such funding.

Many traditional marriage supporters are also cheering President Bush’s nomination of former Utah Gov. Michael O. Leavitt to head the Health and Human Services Department, which runs TANF. Mr. Leavitt was one of the first public officials to champion government-funded marriage activities.

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