Marriage is so good for men’s health that it appears to be more beneficial even than quitting smoking, according to researchers at the University of Arizona.

In a study published in Psychosomatic Medicine, scientists looked at blood samples from 1,715 volunteers between the ages of 57 and 85 and measured their levels of C-reactive protein.

C-reactive protein, which is produced by the liver, is an important marker of body-wide inflammation; and a blood test to determine a person’s C-reactive protein level is typically ordered by doctors to help diagnose some kinds of inflammatory arthritis.

Additionally, a large body of research has documented that the development of cardiovascular disease and the risk for events like heart attacks and strokes rise as blood levels of C-reactive protein, rise above 2.5 milligrams/liter (mg/L).

They found that married men had lower C-reactive protein levels  than unmarried men or married or unmarried women.

When compared with all other participants, married men were 44 percent less likely to be classified in the high risk CRP group.

“The surprising finding is that for men, marriage affords them the same types of protection for elevated risk of C-reactive protein [as having] normal body mass, being a non smoker and having normal blood pressure,” says lead author David Sbarra, PhD, director of clinical training in the Department of Psychology at the University of Arizona in Tucson.

Prior research has suggested that the status of a woman’s health may depend more on the quality of her marriage more than on her marital status, while a man’s health appears to be more closely linked to marital status than quality.

This study, which was funded by the National Institutes of Health, seemed to confirm those observations. 

Marital status didn’t appear to affect female study participants' levels of C-reactive protein, but for men, the impact seemed dramatic.

Marriage appeared to reduce a man’s risk of developing health problems by more than10 percent. That’s the same benefit men see if they maintain a healthy weight as they age, and it’s better than not smoking, which lowers the risk by almost 8 percent, or having normal blood pressure levels, which reduces risk by about 3 percent.

But Antoine Sreih, MD, a rheumatologist at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, says this study has some flaws in its design that may make it difficult to draw sound conclusions from the data.

He points out that researchers excluded people with high C-reactive protein levels and those who had never married. It was also a cross sectional study, which means it didn’t study a group of similar individuals, which makes it harder to tease out the specific factors that may be responsible for a health outcome.

“They’re not all exposed to the same risk factor at the same time with the same circumstances,” Sreih says.

But he says the data do show statistical differences between the groups, but he’s not convinced the numbers are large enough to be clinically meaningful.

But, he says, based on what he sees with patients, marriage does make a contribution to health.

“Married men usually have, especially older patients, usually they have supportive wives taking care of them, making sure they’re taking medications on time, and that makes a big difference in life," Sreih says.