People who are married and living with their spouse have a higher likelihood of being healthy in terms of maintaining lower blood sugar levels.
In a new study published in BMJ Open Diabetes Research, a research team found that living with a spouse appears to have a higher likelihood of being healthy in terms of maintaining lower blood sugar levels regardless of how happy the relationship is.
The researchers expressed that having a spouse or cohabitating partner may be an important relationship and a source of social support and/or strain for adults in mid to later life for their health.
Understanding the health benefits of marriage and cohabiting
Previous studies have suggested that there are health benefits from marriage and/or cohabiting, particularly for older adults. Various studies have concluded that type 2 diabetes risk is associated with multiple social health dimensions, including social isolation, loneliness, living arrangements, social support, and social network size. However, the effects of each specific social health dimension are complex, which led to a team of researchers from Luxembourg and Canada exploring any potential links between marital status and marital quality with average blood sugar levels in older adults.
They used biomarker data from the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing (ELSA) – a population-based sample of adults aged 50 years and older and their partners, who live in England, from whom data is collected every second year, with biomarker data collected every other wave.
The team analysed 3,335 adults aged 50 to 89 years old without previously diagnosed diabetes from 2004 to 2013 in wave 2 (2004-05) – where biomarker data was first available in ELSA.
The participants were invited for a nurse visit following the main interview in waves 2 (2004-05), 4 (2008-09) and 6 (2012-13) and blood samples were taken to measure their HbA1c levels.
To understand the participant’s relationship status, they were asked if they had a husband, wife, or partner with whom they lived and asked questions designed to measure the level of social strain and social support within the marital/cohabitating relationship. They also received information about factors like age, income, and employment.
Can marriage lead to lower blood sugar levels?
The data showed that in wave 2 (2004-05), around 76% of the respondents were married/cohabiting.
The data over time showed that people who experienced marital transitions such as divorce also experienced significant changes in their blood sugar levels and odds of pre-diabetes. However, the quality of the relationship did not make a significant difference to the average levels of blood glucose, suggesting that having a supportive or strained relationship was less important than just having a relationship at all.
This study is observational; therefore, a cause cannot be established. The researchers noted limitations such as several people dropping out of the ELSA between waves with biomarker data, and over half of the wave 2 sample had no follow-up. There was also the possibility that people facing worse health outcomes were more likely to divorce.
The researchers concluded: “Overall, our results suggested that marital/cohabitating relationships were inversely related to HbA1c levels regardless of dimensions of spousal support or strain. Likewise, these relationships appeared to have a protective effect against HbA1c levels above the pre-diabetes threshold.
“Increased support for older adults who are experiencing the loss of a marital/cohabitating relationship through divorce or bereavement, as well as the dismantling of negative stereotypes around romantic relationships in later life, may be starting points for addressing health risks, more specifically deteriorating glycaemic regulation, associated with marital transitions in older adults.”