The mind-body connection is a powerful thing, and one prime example of that is our body’s response to love.
Quite simply, love makes us happy, and numerous studies have shown that it also has a positive effect on our health, in myriad ways.
All things being equal, a happy relationship has been linked with everything from lower blood pressure and diabetes risk, to better mental health and mobility.
Not only that, but the positive health effects of love may be magnified in older people. And while you might not feel the same butterflies when you gaze at your partner of decades, the health benefits of loving someone—and being loved—don’t dwindle.
Interestingly, while both older male and female lovers experience health benefits, they aren’t always the same, according to the research of Hui Liu, a Michigan State University associate professor of sociology who has spent the last decade researching the connection between relationships and health.
Here are some key ways men and women differ when it comes to matters of the heart and health.
The effects of good sex
Multiple medical studies have found a connection between physical interactions—including holding hands and hugging—with everything from lower blood pressure and cholesterol, reduced stress hormones, and other factors that contribute to cardiovascular health. That’s true for both men and women.
But for older women, good sex can reduce the risk of hypertension, says Liu, who co-authored the first large-scale study of how sex affects heart health in later life with by analyzing data from the National Social Life, Health and Aging Project.
“What matters for women is the quality of sex—that they feel emotionally satisfied and compatible in their sexual relationship—when looking at the effects on cardiovascular health,” she adds.
For men, on the other hand, it’s more complicated. Having sex frequently and, er, too enthusiastically may put men at a high risk for heart attacks and other cardiovascular problems later in life.
In Liu’s analysis, older men who have sex once or more a week have nearly double the risk of having a cardiovascular event than men who are sexually inactive. This was particularly true for men who indicated they found sex with their partner extremely pleasurable or satisfying, Liu adds.
The blood sugar boost
In general, the better your relationship, the better your health.
The one exception: for diabetics.
In Liu’s research, among men with diabetes, qualities that are typically negative for a relationship—nagging, criticism— were associated with lower risk of diabetes and, for diabetics, better control of the disease.
Since diabetics require frequent monitoring, says Liu, the men’s health may have benefitted from the very qualities that soured them on their relationship.
Yet women who were at risk for or had diabetes did not see the same effects.
It may be that women are more sensitive than men about the quality of a relationship, theorizes Liu, and therefore more likely to get a health boost from a warm hug rather than a well-intended prod.
How marriage helps mental health
The emotional benefits of a strong relationship can be profound—and in this case, both men and women benefit. People who are satisfied with their partners are less prone to bouts of depression, anxiety, and feelings of loneliness and self-doubt.
The operative word here is satisfaction. “For older people in particular, the quality of the relationship becomes more important,” says Liu.
If the relationship is strained, she says, it can actually be more detrimental to your long-term health than going through a divorce.
The reasons: A not-so-perfect union can take a bigger toll as people age, Liu says. Meanwhile, the relationship tends to carry more weight after kids leave the nest, retirement becomes a reality, and friends relocate or pass away.
But for women, the effects of moving on from an unhappy relationship can be profound. A study of post-menopausal women published in the Journal of Women’s Health found that a late-in-life divorce was correlated with better eating habits and other markers of increased health.
For men, on the other hand, divorce is strongly correlated with negative health effects, at any age. It’s just one more reason to spoil your significant other this Valentine’s Day.