In May, a study published in The American Journal of Psychiatry revealed a new, unexpected weapon against alcoholism: marriage.
Researchers at Virginia Commonwealth University in Virginia and Lund University in Sweden performed an extensive, data-driven study on how marriage influences the likelihood of a person later developing alcoholism.
These researchers examined more than 3.2 million people born in Sweden between the years 1960 and 1990. At the start of the study, all of the participants were single and none had a history of alcoholism.
As the study progressed, 72,252 of the participants met the criteria for alcohol use disorder, or 3.3 percent of men and 1.1 percent of women. When the researchers further broke down the numbers, they found that individuals who got married were considerably less likely to develop alcoholism. Specifically, they determined that married men had a 60 percent lower risk of developing alcoholism than their single peers, and that married women had a 71 percent lower risk.
Researchers performed further analysis to make sure that no confounding factors were influencing their results. (As an example, it’s possible that people in a certain social class are more likely or less likely to marry, or that children of alcoholics are less likely to marry.) The researchers found that their results were not confounded by socioeconomic status, family history of alcoholism, or even an early history of criminal activity or drug abuse.
In other words, marriage itself seemed to be influencing a participant’s likelihood of developing alcoholism.
“With this study, we were trying to determine if marriage influences individuals’ future risks for alcohol use disorders,” said the study’s first author Kenneth S. Kendler, M.D., a professor of psychiatry and human and molecular genetics at Virginia Commonwealth University. “The answer is yes, and actually quite profoundly.”
The researchers also found that marriage appeared to be particularly beneficial for individuals with a family history of alcoholism.
“It is the person who is most vulnerable to the risk of alcoholism from a genetic background who might be the most sensitive to the protective effects of marriage,” explained Kendler.
There was, however, one notable exception: People who were married to a person currently struggling with alcoholism were more likely to develop alcoholism themselves.
“While being married to a spouse who now or in the future stays free of alcohol problems is quite protective, marrying someone who now or in the future develops alcohol problems is the opposite,” said Kendler. “It is considerably worse than being single.”
What does this mean?
What makes marriage such a strong protector against developing alcoholism?
The researchers suspect that a happy marriage may provide individuals with a strong, social support network to help them cope with stressful situations.
“Maybe this is something that Alcoholics Anonymous figured out a long time ago,” Kendler said, referring to the organization’s model of sponsorship and confiding to peers without judgment. “This study is part of forming a strong scientific base for understanding how important social influences can be on alcohol use disorder.”
The team’s next goal is to determine whether or not divorce increases the risk of developing alcoholism. Since divorce can be stressful — and involves severing social bonds — they suspect that it will.
In the end, people who are at risk for developing alcoholism probably shouldn’t rush into marriage, but they should do what they can to form strong, social connections with the people around them. Doing so might just save their lives.
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About the author
Courtney Lopresti, M.S., is a senior staff writer for the Sovereign Health Group, where she uses her scientific background to write online blogs and articles for a general audience. At the University of Pittsburgh, where she earned her master’s in neuroscience, she used functional neuroimaging to study how the human cerebellum contributes to language processing. In her spare time, she writes fiction, reads Oliver Sacks and spends time with her two cats and bird. Courtney is currently located in Minneapolis. For more information and other inquiries about this article, contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.