Married people are healthier— that’s been the conclusion among social scientists for years. But according to a new study, the health gap between married and never-married people—especially men—has narrowed substantially over the past three decades.

In the study, which appears in the September issue of The Journal of Health and Social Behavior, researchers analyzed health trends between 1972 and 2003 among more than one million Americans. They found that the probability of reporting good health increased drastically during this period for never-married men and, to a lesser extent, for never-married women as well. Because the health of married women also improved, overall health disparities between married and never-married women remained relatively stable. But married men were in no better health in 2003 than they were 30 years earlier, so the health gap between married and never-married men narrowed considerably.

Cathy Hui Liu, an assistant professor of sociology at Michigan State University and an author on the study, says that one possible explanation for the improved health among never-married Americans could be that people are staying single longer, and being single has become more socially acceptable. This means that there’s probably less stigma attached to not being married, she says, which would in turn reduce stress and boost health among singles.

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In the past, researchers have found unmarried men to be more socially isolated than unmarried women, which meant that men benefited more from the social and psychological resources that came with marriage.

But Liu speculates that a greater number of single people in the population means larger social networks for unmarried individuals. As a result, unmarried people today may enjoy more kinds of social support than they had 30 years ago, which would reduce the relative benefits of marriage, particularly for men. Outside of the formal institution of marriage, people are likely finding “increasing friendship networks, social resources, and connections,” says Liu, “and these things are good for health.” Similarly, alternatives to marriage—such as co-habitation and same-sex unions—may provide the same health benefits that traditional marriage provides.

However, the study also reveals that health gaps between married and previously married—divorced or widowed—people has actually widened over the past three decades. According to the authors, that could be because widows with chronic health problems are living longer these days, increasing the number of years in which they report being in poor health, or it could mean that the stress of marital dissolution is particularly acute today. Liu suggests that these new findings challenge deeply ingrained beliefs about marriage and could potentially help inform social policy discussions in the future. “Politicians and researchers often promote policies to encourage marriage,” she says. “But this study highlights the complexity of that issue.”

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