Susan Martinuk has been a medical researcher and research-based writer for most of her adult life. It takes a lot to raise her eyebrows.
Yet Martinuk says she was taken aback by data in her latest publication for Cardus on the indisputable link between healthy marriages and healthy lives. Beyond established statistics affirming that connection, she says, were the results of a study from 2013 showing wedded bliss can even boost cancer survival.
“The cancer survival statistics definitely jumped out at me,” she says. “They were absolutely dramatic. One study, which was a very large study of 735,000 people, found that married cancer patients live 20 per cent longer. They also looked at people who had one of the 10 most common cancers in the United States and found that for five of those cancers, the survival effect attributed to marriage was stronger than the survival effect attributed to chemotherapy.”
“Don’t bother with chemo; just get married.”
The remark is made in jest. Martinuk firmly believes, however, that the numbers in her study released Sept. 29 by Cardus Family must prompt a serious conversation in the medical world, among politicians, and even in schools about the positive health outcomes of long, strong marriages. The review of 50 published empirical medical studies demonstrates a correlation between good marriage and reduced risk of heart attack, improved mental health, healthier lifestyles and habits, and better ability to withstand psychological stress.
The Vancouver-based researcher-writer, whose CV includes a medical breakthrough in 1990 when she and her colleagues were the first to visualize and record the process of human ovulation, says she was surprised at just how “overwhelmingly positive” the evidence is for death being delayed when ‘til-death-do-us-part’ is the basis of life.
“I had expected there would be far more contrary reports but when I went through all the studies to provide both sides of the story, there’s really not very much for the other side. A lot of this is just accepted.”
What’s accepted in research, sadly, is too seldom put into practice by individual physicians. Part of the reason, Martinuk thinks, is the natural resistance of many doctors who understand the need for family history but are nervous about making family questions appear too personal.
“I think it’s imperative we get this information to physicians because they need to know what are the missing elements in a patient’s life, and to consider whether or not they are married as part of the treatment protocol,” she says. “There is such a dramatic difference between married and unmarried groups in the outcomes of surgery and serious illness such as cancer or heart disease. The medical community needs to know this, and act on it.”
Enter policymakers, who need to be helped to understand that marriage being empirically good for health is also emphatically good for the public health care system both in terms of quality of care and efficient use of resources. She would love to see research from Statistics Canada or Health Canada on the effect of having 54 per cent of Canadians single versus 46 per cent married.
“Is that having any impact on the health care system? What kind of utilization statistics does it produce? If we actually counted the number of times single people go to the doctor versus married people, men versus women, we could see (the effects of marriage on health) even more concretely.”
A clear benefit, she says, would be to bring education ministries across the country on board with helping students understand the benefits of marriages well-lived.
“All too often, public discussion of marriage simply involves demographics and what poor condition marriage is in and the declining numbers of people marrying, and the declining numbers of marriages that stay together. Now we’ve got numbers that we can put to it to change that conversation, to promote healthy marriages and make changes in the health care system to reflect married people having very different needs from unmarried people.”
“As long as you’re connected emotionally through marriage, through family, you have added meaning and purpose to your life, and that shows up in your health. It’s not just a question of everyone thinking that. The numbers show it’s true.”
Perhaps the real surprise is that we should be surprised.