This is an article I wrote for M2 magazine when I worked at the Neurological Foundation. I don’t have a print version but it is still relevant.
Why relationships are good for men’s health
Generally it is accepted that married men live longer than single men and have better health. The reasons why aren’t clear, but scientists have theorised that marriage provides the social, psychological and economic resources needed for good health, which in turn promotes longevity.
But studies by Dr Robert Sapolsky of Stanford University of baboon troupes may give us some pointers as to why long-term relationships can have a positive effect on male health. Baboons are very hierarchical and aggressive; the males fight constantly to improve their rank while tormenting those lower in the pecking order. As they age, the once dominant males fall down the ranks and are in turn terrorized by younger males taking their revenge.
Dr Sapolsky, however, found one group of males managed to escape this stress. As they aged, these males cultivated relationships with the female baboons. Although they were harassed as much as the other males, the females kept them company, groomed them and buffered them from the constant in-fighting. Thus, they led a happier life than the other males.
But why does fulfilling a social and psychological need – such as a loving relationship and friendship – have such a big impact on male health?
The answer may lie with an intriguing brain hormone called oxytocin, which neuroscientists have discovered plays a vital role in the protective nature of relationships. It is more often associated with childbirth and is produced when mothers hold their babies, facilitating bonding. But oxytocin also surges into our brains when we hug or are shown physical affection. Even a massage or patting a pet can trigger it. Studies have found that its release into the brain is critical for the formation of lifelong bonds between sexual partners in many species.
It also produces many physical benefits; it lowers our blood pressure, decreasing the risk of stroke, and even help us heal faster. It reduces anxiety and stress hormones and there is evidence that oxytocin promotes the growth of stem cells that repair the heart.
In contrast, studies of acute stress caused by marital strife found that wound healing took two days longer in bickering couples. Their levels of stress hormones, such as cortisol, were higher and oxytocin lower, while couples who had happy relationships showed higher levels of oxytocin.
Relationship status makes little difference to women’s health and longevity as they tend to build strong social networks and friendships throughout their lives – and they are more physically demonstrative. But things may be improving for the sad single male. Researchers speculate that single men are now building the same type of friendships and social networks and getting the benefits of marriage. In other words, they are getting more hugs. This could also explain why in recent years single men are catching up on their married counterparts in terms of health and
Dr Colin Brown of the University of Otago Centre of Neuroendocrinolgy is studying how the hormone functions at the cellular level. What is most intriguing, he says, is that we are not as in control of ourselves as we think we are.
“We like to think of ourselves as rational beings who make informed decisions about how to behave in society. While complex social behaviours are controlled by the ‘higher’ centres in our brains, the choices about which complex behaviour to indulge in at any particular time is driven by the hypothalamus.”
The hypothalamus plays a vital role in the brain as it takes information about our body and our environment, makes decisions about it, and signals this information to the rest of the brain. Oxytocin is one of the signalers in this system, he says.
Essentially, our brain pushes us to do the things that are vital for its health. When the brain needs glucose, it triggers brain hormones to makes us eat, and when we are tired it releases hormones that makes us sleepy even if we want to stay up. Our brains, it seems, also needs cuddles.
Oxytocin is a major area of interest for neuroscientists because of its myriad effects in the brain. Its influence on autism, bonding disorders, ageing, anxiety disorders and depression are now major areas of study.