New & Now

Beneficial Bliss: Happily married couples feel better about aging.

IN A NOTEBOOK entry from 1895, Mark Twain remarked that “… to get the full value of joy, you must have someone to divide it with.” Twain had no shortage of credibility on this score. He and his wife, Olivia Langdon Clemens, were happily married until her death in 1904, a span of 34 years.

Olivia, or Livy as she was known to friends and family, was not well as a child. As a teenager she spent six years as an invalid, so sick her family despaired of her survival. But despite occasional health setbacks as an adult, the union with Twain agreed with her, as it did with him: both lived full, contented lives, a circumstance that MU’s Christine Proulx says was likely not a coincidence.

As it turns out, Proulx determined in a recent study, sharing one’s measure of joy is good for your health, especially if you are an aging adult. Proulx, assistant professor of human development and family studies, analyzed data from 707 continuously married adults who participated in the “Marital Instability Over the Life Course” panel study, a 20-year, nationwide research project started in 1980 with funding from the Social Security Administration’s Office of Research and Statistics and the National Institute on Aging. She found that people who have happy marriages are more likely to rate their health as better as they age.

“We often think about the aging process as something we can treat medically with a pill or more exercise, but working on your marriage also might benefit your health as you age,” Proulx says. “Engaging with your spouse is not going to cure cancer, but building stronger relationships can improve both people’s spirits and well-being and lower their stress.”

The finding is of particular relevance as we grow older, she says, because that’s when the declining health of a spouse may demand the full measure of marital devotion. “I suspect we’d have higher rates of adherence to treatment plans for chronic illnesses if medical professionals placed more of an emphasis on incorporating families and spouses in patients’ care. If spouses understand their partners’ disease and how to treat it at home, and the couple has a strong marriage, both people’s health could improve.”

The study was published in the Journal of Family Psychology. Linley Snyder-Rivas, an MU doctoral candidate in human development and family studies, was coauthor.

Couple from another century in a heart.

Illustration by Blake Dinsdale

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