1. Health

Being Married Improves Life Expectancy

Just Not As Much As It Used To

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Updated August 27, 2009

Marriage

Marriage

Photo: Tom Grill / Getty Images
Marriage was one of the first non-biological factors identified as improving life expectancy. The explanation given was that married people tend to take fewer risks with their health and have better mental and emotional health. Marriage also provides more social and material support ("material support" is a term for things like someone to take you to the doctor or care for you when you are sick).

But, Being Single Is Getting Healthier

The difference between married people and single people, in terms of health, is narrowing. To really understand this, we have to be precise about terms. Researchers typically distinguish between never married, currently married, widowed and divorced. As we look in-depth into this issue of marriage and health, we’ll see that things get pretty fuzzy nowadays.

The Changing Face of Marriage and Life Expectancy

No one is saying that having a piece of paper that says “married” on it is going to improve your life expectancy. There is something about people who live in marriage that improves life expectancy –- or to be more precise, there was something about people who lived in marriage in the 70s that was found to improve life expectancy. Now, people could be listed as “single never married” in census data, but be living with someone and be experiencing all the health benefits of marriage without having the marriage certificate. This complicates research on marriage and health (I predict that we aren’t going to see anymore “marriage and life expectancy” research because of the multiple living arrangements that are options for people. Instead we’ll see new indicators like “intimate partner” or “spouse-like relationships”).

Singles Catching Up

Even using the traditional categories of “currently married” or “never married,” singles are catching up, but only men. Men who were never married typically had the lowest life expectancy (in 1972). Now, the never married men are closing in on their currently married counterparts. The difference in life expectancy is becoming smaller because (the researchers think) that single men now have access to support and health resources that, in the past, only came because their wife took care of them. In other words, in the 1970s, married men had the advantage (over never married men) because they had their wives to make sure they went to the doctor and took care of themselves. Now, men are taking more responsibility for their own health and it is normal for a man to express concern about his health and take action.

What About Widows?

Bad news for the widowed (as if being widowed weren’t bad news enough). Compared to 1972, people who are widowed now report poorer health than their married counterparts. In the 70s, they reported their health as the same as married people, now their health is about 7% worse. No one really knows why the experience of being widowed now is more detrimental to health than being widowed in the 70s. My guess is that in the 70s, widowed people had more of a community and extended family to help them out (they were more likely to live with their children, for example). Now, the widowed are more likely to be isolated.

The Study – Marriage and Life Expectancy

This study used data from the National Health Interview Study over a period of 32 years. The purpose of the study was to look at how the relationship between marriage, health and life expectancy changed over that period. There were 1.1 million people in the database.

Source(s):

Liu H, Umberson DJ. The times they are a changin’: marital status and health differentials from 1972 to 2003. J Health Soc Behav 49(3), 2008.

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