Marriage is good medicine for someone who has a heart attack.
That’s the conclusion of a study that tracked nearly 1 million British patients for 13 years. The researchers found that married patients who had a heart attack were 14 percent more likely to survive until the end of the study than singles.
And compared to divorced patients, survival odds for wedded folks were 16 percent higher, said study senior author Dr. Rahul Potluri. He’s a clinical lecturer at Aston University Medical School in Birmingham, England.
“Marriage is a proxy for psychological risk factors which are important for ensuring compliance to medication,” Potluri said. In other words, the social and physical support a spouse can provide translates to significant health benefits.
For instance, marriage appears to have a positive effect on the three largest risk factors for heart disease — high cholesterol, diabetes and high blood pressure, Potluri said.
Compared with unmarried patients, a spouse with high cholesterol was 16 percent more likely to be alive at the end of the study. Married patients with type 2 diabetes were 14 percent more likely to survive, and patients with high blood pressure had a 10 percent survival benefit with marriage, the researchers found.
In addition, spouses help patients improve their lifestyle, lose weight, eat better and stop smoking, Potluri said.
The researchers didn’t look specifically at gender differences, but they plan to in future studies.
However, Potluri suspects that the worst survival is among divorced men, followed by divorced women, single men and single women.
“Divorce is a double whammy,” he said. “Divorce doesn’t happen overnight. It happens over time during which patients lose their will to look after themselves.”
Divorce also often occurs at a younger age when responsibilities like caring for young children can add to the stress of an unraveling marriage, Potluri said.
But don’t think you have to marry to survive after a heart attack, he said.
“The message is not that patients who have had a heart attack should get married, but to ensure that they have some sort of support network,” Potluri said.
Dr. Byron Lee, who directs the electrophysiology laboratories and clinics at the University of California, San Francisco, wasn’t surprised by the findings.
“Dealing with heart disease is difficult,” said Lee. “It often involves a long list of medications, repeated testing and frequent doctor appointments. Married patients probably do better because they have someone to help them keep track of all of this.”
Although the benefit of marriage after a heart attack has been reported before, this is the largest study of its kind, the researchers said.
Dr. Gregg Fonarow, a professor of cardiology at the University of California, Los Angeles, agreed that marriage is typically good for the heart.
Many studies have shown that for both men and women, marriage is associated with lower risk of cardiovascular events and death compared to being single or divorced.
“Psychosocial factors are increasingly recognized as important in heart health,” Fonarow said.
For the study, the researchers used an algorithm that Potluri devised to analyze data on nearly 930,000 patients hospitalized in England between 2000 and 2013. The researchers looked to see what effect marital status had on survival of people with heart risk factors or a previous heart attack.
Of the total, more than 25,000 had had a heart attack. More than 168,000 had high blood pressure, about 53,000 had high cholesterol, and 68,000 had type 2 diabetes, the researchers said.
Marriage conferred survival benefits across the board, the researchers concluded.
The study results were presented Monday at a meeting of the European Society of Cardiology, in Barcelona, Spain. Studies presented at meetings are usually considered preliminary until published in a peer-reviewed medical journal.
For more on heart attack, visit the American Heart Association.