A Healthy Marriage May Improve Health

July 2, 2009

Difficulties in managing a chronic condition such as type 2 diabetes can lead to decreased confidence, added stress, worsening health, and, in turn, lower quality of life. Being involved in a healthy relationship such as marriage, however, may improve a person’s ability to manage diabetes and reduce later complications. Dr. Linda Wray, associate professor of biobehavioral health in Penn State’s College of Health and Human Development, was recently awarded a $400,000 grant from the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK) to study how marriage and other social relationships can impact how people manage their type 2 diabetes.

“We know from past studies that many people living with diabetes don’t manage it particularly well,” said Wray. “And, people who don’t manage their diabetes well are at a higher risk of developing complications, which could lead to shorter lives and higher health care costs for both them and society. The question is why don’t people manage their diabetes better?”

“One possible reason involves how their social relationships influence them. People don’t live in a vacuum. We’re all surrounded and influenced by others. Our motivation to behave in more or less healthful ways is built on the support of those closest to us, whether they are our spouses, other family members, or friends. There’s something about a healthy marriage, in particular, that helps people find the confidence they need to manage their health conditions, whether that’s emotional support, shared finances, or something else,” said Wray.

But Wray isn’t only interested in marriage. Strong, healthy social relationships other than marriage might also provide the same psychological benefits as marriage. This is important, as the number of divorces in the country is on the rise, as is the number of people who have never married.

Wray is analyzing data from the Health and Retirement Study (HRS), an ongoing nationally representative survey run through the University of Michigan, which has interviewed a panel of over 20,000 middle-aged and older adults every two years since the early 1990s. She has access to valuable general data such as age, gender, socioeconomic status, race/ethnicity,  physical and psychological health, as well as marriage status. A diabetes-specific component of the HRS in 2003 contains additional data on how much support a person receives, how much confidence a person has in managing diabetes, behavioral changes (adherence to diets or exercise routines), and health outcomes ( quality of life since being diagnosed with diabetes and glycemic control). The breadth and depth of general and specific HRS data, as well as its large sample sizes, make it a particularly rich source of contemporary information on adults living with diabetes.

“With access to all these data, we’re hoping to identify where we might intervene to help people manage their diabetes better,” said Wray. “Our goal is to help people live more healthfully with their diabetes.”

The project, which was funded in September 2008, will last until August 2010.

Other individuals involved in the project are Dr. Duane Alwin, McCourtney Professor of Sociology and Demography at Penn State and director of Penn State’s Center on Population Health and Aging; Dr. Sherry Willis, professor emerita of human development and family studies at Penn State; Ching-Ju Chiu, graduate student in Biobehavioral Health; Melissa Franks, assistant professor of family studies at Purdue University; Carla Miller, associate professor of human nutrition at Ohio State University; and Amy Pienta, associate research scientist at the University of Michigan.

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Editors: Linda Wray can be reached at law30@psu.edu or 814-865-0764. For additional information, please contact the College of Health and Human Development Office of College Relations at 814-865-3831 or healthhd@psu.edu.