A recent study suggests that women who marry later in life are more likely to gain weight compared to women who marry in their younger years—or prior to menopause. On the other hand, older women who go through a divorce or separation were found to lose weight and saw other positive changes to their health.
Lead author of the study, Dr. Randa Kutob, explained, “Earlier studies on marriage and divorce have shown that marriage is usually associated with a longer lifespan and fewer health problems, while divorce is associated with higher mortality.” The interesting thing we found in our study is that with divorce in postmenopausal women, it’s not all negative, at least not in the short term.”
The majority of studies conducted on the intersection of women, marital status, and health have often been done on younger women, but the researchers were more interested in uncovering the effects that these three factors have on older women who are more susceptible to chronic health conditions.
The researchers looked at data for women aged 50 to 79 over a three-year period. The women were categorized in one of four groups: Single to married or committed relationship, started off married then separating or divorcing, or unchanged marital status. The researchers also looked at a variety of health measures, including weight, waist circumference, and blood pressure, along with health indicators like smoking, diet, and alcohol consumption.
The researchers found that all of the women who started the study unmarried saw some weight gain over the three-year period, which is seen as a normal part of aging. Those who went from unmarried to married saw greater weight loss compared to those who remained single. Lastly, those who went from married to single saw the greatest weight gain compared to their unmarried counterparts.
It isn’t fully clear as to why or how marital status affects weight, but one theory suggests marriage-related weight gain may be a result of couples sitting with each other for longer periods of time and living a more sedentary lifestyle. Furthermore, the researchers speculate that although couples do not eat poorly, they may be consuming larger portion sizes, which can further contribute to weight gain.
There was a greater decrease in systolic blood pressure among the unmarried women, but married women also saw a minor decrease as well. Additionally, unmarried women were less likely to consume alcohol compared to the married women but there weren’t major differences between smoking rates and physical activity.
The biggest improvements in diet were seen among women who were married but divorced or separated which was not tied to depression or not eating as much as a result of an emotional response. On the other hand, although divorced women saw many improvements in areas of diet and weight loss, rates of smoking were found to be higher. This rise in smoking was more commonly seen among former smokers and rarely was it a first-time smoker.
Dr. Kutob added, “As a health provider, my takeaway is that I should be thinking about marital transitions, and when people get married, say congratulations but also give them some advice and tools for their health, and encourage all women as they age to continue being physically active.”
“With divorce, some women take that moment to focus more on their own health, as it would appear from our results. As a health provider, I should be encouraging them in those efforts so that those efforts aren’t short-term but become lifelong. Even a pretty devastating life event like a divorce can have some positive outcomes, and if we can encourage the positive it will probably help those people cope as well,” she concluded.