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It’s all about relationships

June 27th, 2005

Dr Petra

Three news stories about relationships caught my eye today.

New research from the University of Chicago suggests relationship problems or stresses can affect your health in later life.

Researchers have reanalysed data from over 8600 participants aged 51-61 to assess the association between relationships and physical health. The results showed divorce or widowhood creates stress that can lead to chronic health problems. Couples who live alone or with their children have better physical and mental health than couples or singles that live with aging parents or grandchildren. Those who have a happy remarriage or new relationship have the same health benefits as those in a long-term positive relationship.

The message is clear, keep happy and keep out of the way of your in-laws! Which is interesting given in many cultures communal living is common and having family close by actually makes people feel more supported and healthier. It would be interesting to see if similar outcomes would be found if you repeated the study in other country settings.

Meanwhile academics at London School of Economics have researched over 10000 men and women and found that ½ of twenty something men are staying single. Whilst women are putting off settling down and having children until their thirties, the LSE research suggests men aren’t settling down at all. This has long-term implications for heterosexual women who want long-term partners and a family. Whilst straight men may be choosing to stay single, in the long term it may not be in their interest since evidence suggests married men fare better emotionally and physically than single ones – usually (it is assumed) because their wife looks out for their well being.

Perhaps academics at the University of Washington have the answer. They intend to create an at-home pre-marriage programme for couples. They’ll complete questionnaires and be interviewed and videotaped so their relationship can be evaluated. Results will be fed back to couples so they can identify where there are areas of their relationship that might cause problems later on – which based on the University of Chicago study could also prevent health problems in older age.

These studies are reassuring as they tell us it’s normal for many people to remain single. It’s less comforting to know that the inevitable relationship crises many people face could affect their health in later life, so perhaps health practitioners could ask about previous relationship status as well as current relationship status during a patient exam to identify any health risks.

All this suggests to me that we need to do more in-depth research into relationships. Not just surveys that ask what people think or count how often they have sex, argue or share household tasks. We need to be able to understand what’s going on in 21st century relationships, and to apply our research to help couples understand each other better and to keep each other healthy.

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