Having a stable marriage may improve your odds of surviving after a stroke, a new study suggests. But if you've been divorced more than once or never married, the news is not as reassuring, researchers reported in the Journal of the American Heart Association.
“This study adds to a growing body of research showing how our social relationships can have immediate and lasting consequences for our health,” said the study’s lead author, Dr. Matthew Dupre, associate professor in the Department of Community and Family Medicine and the Duke Clinical Research Institute. “It’s important for stroke survivors to understand how their marital history may impact their recovery following this serious health event."
Among patients who never married, the risk of death was 71 percent higher than among those who had remained married to the same partner.
Among those with two or more divorces behind them, the risk of death climbed significantly—they were nearly 40 percent more likely to die by the end of the study compared to those in stable marriages.
The researchers also found that being widowed increased the risk of death.
It doesn't mean you have to have a fairy tale life with your spouse to avoid stroke complications, but for people with a bumpy or nonexistent marital history, the new research is another reason to reduce stroke risk.
Stroke, which is one of the leading causes of disability and death in the United States, affects nearly 800,000 adults each year.
While the new study is the first in the U.S. to examine the impact of marriage on survival after a stroke, there have reports showing that having a spouse improves your odds of surviving after a heart attack.
For the new study, researchers analyzed data from 2,351 patients 41 and older who had experienced a stroke between 1992 and 2010. The study volunteers who were part of a larger study, had been interviewed every two years for decades, allowing the researchers to account for a host of factors that might also impact the risk of death, including limited social support, depressive symptoms, socio economic status, alcohol and tobacco consumption, high blood pressure, diabetes, and BMI.
Remarriage did not appear to mitigate multiple divorces. But Dupre suspects the timing of those divorces might eventually be found to make a difference.
“We know from prior studies that the health risks related to divorce generally diminish over time,” he said.
Risks were especially pronounced among those who had ever been widowed — presumably because of the proximity of this marital loss to the occurrence of a stroke at older ages.
The new study “is really eye-opening in terms of the impact of having a stable marriage,” said Dr. Shyam Prabhakaran, a professor of neurology and director of stroke research at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine. It suggests “that the presence of a loved one in your life during those post stroke years provides support and motivation.”
The findings show the importance of a strong support system for stroke patients, said Dr. Tudor Jovin, a professor of neurology and neurosurgery and director of the Stroke Institute at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. Jovin is unaffiliated with the new research.
"We know that a stroke victim’s family support makes a big, big difference and spouses are the essential component of that,” said Jovin.