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Married couples have a stronger grip and walk faster

23 January 2019

Older married men and women are more physically capable than their unmarried or cohabiting peers, according to a new study by a UCL Institute of Education academic.

Couple holding hands on a walk

The study, published today in PLOS One journal, analysed data from over 20,000 people from England and the United States from the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing (ELSA) in 2008 and the US Health and Retirement Study (HRS) in 2006 and 2008. 

The study, written by Dr Natasha Wood, took two measures of physical capability in adults aged 60 years and older. These measures - walking speed and grip strength - are good indicators of people's current independence in everyday activities and also of their future needs for social care and risk of mortality.  People who have a weaker grip strength would have more difficulty opening a jar, whilst those with a slower walking speed would have difficulty crossing a pedestrian crossing in time at the green man. 

“We know from previous research that married people live longer and report better physical and mental health, but there is limited evidence on the association between marriage and physical capability,” explained lead author, Dr Wood. 

“Much of the advantage that married people have is because they are, on average, wealthier than those who are not married and greater wealth has been linked with better physical capability.”  

On average, men who were in their first marriage had a 0.73 kg and 0.61 kg stronger grip than men who were widowed or never married respectively. In the US men who were in their first marriage had a 0.80 kg and 1.45 kg stronger grip strength than men who were widowed or never married, respectively. Remarried men had a stronger grip strength than men in their first marriage of 0.61kg in England and 0.22 kg in the USA.

In England men in their first marriage walked 8 cm per second faster than widowers and 11 cm per second faster than men who had never married. In the US men in their first marriage walked 7 cm per second faster than widowed men and 4 cm per second faster than men who had never married.  

Among women in England those in their first marriage had a faster walking speed ranging from 6 cm to 8 cm per second faster than unmarried women.  In the US the comparable figures were 4 cm to 5 cm per second faster than unmarried women.

The majority of these differences disappeared once the researchers had accounted for wealth. 

Dr Wood added: “Given more people are entering older ages having never married, or having made a transition out of marriage, either through divorce or widowhood, these results could mean that in the future more people can expect to experience more difficulties with every day activities at older ages.

“The importance of wealth in explaining much of the poorer physical capability among older unmarried people suggests that protecting and improving the financial circumstances of unmarried people may help to ensure they’re on a level playing field with married people in terms of physical capability and independent living in later life."

Funding was provided by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC).

Media contact

Rowan Walker, UCL Media Relations
T: +44 (0) 20 3108 8515 / +44 (0) 7769 141006 
E: rowan.walker@ucl.ac.uk 

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