Want to live longer? Then get hitched, writes Shane Cochrane
Men who had never married were twice as likely to have died in middle age
According to my mother, my father would have died of scurvy if it hadn't been for her. It seems that his avoidance of fruit and veg was forcibly ended when he said "I do."
I don't think my mother is unique in this respect. I'm sure there are many women who believe they rescued the man they settled with. The thing is – they could be right. Marriage may be keeping men alive.
A recent study by Duke University Medical Centre in the US found that being married protects men against an early death in middle age.
The study examined 4,802 individuals, born in the 1940s, who had taken part in a heart study.
They found that those men who had never been married were twice as likely to have died in middle age as those who had been married.
According to Dr Spiegler, who led the research: "These patterns provide different levels of emotional and functional social support, which has been shown to be related to mortality." In other words, being married can have a major impact on a man's life expectancy.
Just how big an impact was illustrated in a cancer study by Dr Elizabeth Nichols, of the University of Maryland. Her study examined the survival rates for patients treated for non-small cell lung cancer in the period January 2000 to December 2010.
The variation in survival rates was shocking. Nichols found that the survival rate for women, three years after the treatment, was 45pc. For married men it was 25pc. Single men had only a 3pc survival rate.
"Marital status appears to be an important predictor of survival rates in patients with locally advanced non-small cell lung cancer," says Nichols.
"The reason for this is unclear, but our findings suggest the importance of social support in managing and treating our lung cancer patients. Patients may need help with day-to-day activities, getting to treatment and making sure they receive follow-up care."
What this study highlights is the love and support a cancer patient receives at home is as important as the surgery or medication used to treat the cancer. This point isn't lost on Dr E Albert Reece, the university's vice president for medical affairs.
"This study suggests that having a spouse who can act as a caregiver may improve survival for patients with this type of cancer.
"We must figure out ways to help all of our cancer patients live longer, with a better quality of life, regardless."
But it's not just men's health that improves with marriage. Researchers at Michigan State University found that being married has a big influence on male behaviour.
The team looked at 289 pairs of male twins, assessing them at four-year intervals between the ages of 17 and 29. They found that in cases where one twin was married and the other unmarried, the married twin was less likely to engage in antisocial behaviour – such as aggressive or illegal activities.
While researchers acknowledged that men who get married tend to be less antisocial to begin with, they found that marriage further reduces any antisocial tendencies.
According to Dr S Alexandra Burt, who led the research, marriage improves men's behaviour by providing them with increased social bonding, and by limiting the time they spend with "delinquent peers".
But perhaps the improved behaviour is also a result of reduced alcohol consumption. Researchers at the University of Cincinnati found that, compared to single, divorced and widowed men, married men drink less alcohol.
The researchers believe that a married man's drinking is influenced by his partner's lower levels of consumption. However, this comes at a cost: married women drink more than divorced or widowed women.
Whereas men reduce drinking to fall in with the drinking habits of their partner, women increase their drinking for the same reason.
It almost seems that marriage benefits men at the expense of women. Is this really the case?
At Michigan State University they found that men and women are happier when married. "Our study suggests that people are happier than they would have been if they didn't get married," says Dr Stevie Yap.
Dr Yap is not talking about a state of constant euphoria. Rather, marriage seems to help people maintain a steady level of happiness and well-being.
However, Dr Kelly Musick has found this mental well-being is not exclusive to married couples.
"Our research shows that marriage is by no means unique in promoting well-being and that other forms of romantic relationships can provide many of the same benefits."
Dr Musick found that well-being also increased for men and women when they moved in together.
However, she found that there were some differences between the cohabiting and married couples in the benefits they experienced .
"While married couples experienced health gains, cohabiting couples experienced greater gains in happiness and self-esteem."
While most of the research has focused on the "traditional" notion of marriage. But it seems likely that same-sex partnerships would provide the same benefits.
Apart from managing to avoid scurvy, my father has beaten cancer – twice; and survived heart bypass surgery, two hip replacement operations and a kick from a donkey. He's also quite a happy man.
Science seems to support my mother's claims.