Scientists have discovered that if you never have sex, you will live forever.
At least it feels that way.
(author of joke unknown)
Does marriage cause you to live longer?
One of our longevity myths is “Get married, and you will live longer.” The data tell a different story. Marriage was health-promoting primarily for men who were well-suited to marriage and had a good marriage. For the rest, there were all kinds of complications.
For example, women who got divorced often thrived. Even women who were widowed often did exceptionally well. It often seemed as if women who got rid of their troublesome husbands stayed healthy—most women, it seemed, can rely on their friends and other social ties. Men who got and stayed divorced, on the other hand, were at really high risk for premature mortality. It would have been better had they not married at all.
I haven’t read the details of their study, but they seem to be dancing around the issue a bit here. It could well be that they found that divorcées lived on average longer than their peers who remained married, but this isn’t what they said. From the few articles I’ve seen on the issue, there seems to be broad agreement that marriage correlates with longer life for both men and women. The real issue of contention is whether marriage is the cause of the increased life spans, or both are influenced by some third factor. For example, men in poor health are less likely to marry in the first place, or perhaps might be more likely to experience divorce. Also, personality traits like industriousness, conscientiousness, and future time orientation could all to some degree influence both marital status and health.
I’ve never really dug into the issue because to me the “get married because you will live longer” argument always seemed like a very poor one. As the opening joke shows, quality of life should be part of the equation. If someone doesn’t see being married as a preferable state, why marry simply to live longer?
However, I was thinking about the overall issue even before Lily brought up the study because of the trends in the US Census data. For example, take the chart I made for my post Are Women Done With Men After Age 55?
Note how the percentage of women who are either divorcées or never married continues to shrink after age 64. This is at a time when their opportunity to marry is extremely restricted. As I have shared before, only 4 out of 1,000 divorced women 65 or over marry in any given year. This data is from 1990, and the long term trend for remarriage is declining. So we know they aren’t getting married at the kinds of rates which would empty the pool of divorcées, even if no additional married women became divorced in this age bracket. So why are they declining so rapidly as a percentage of the population? Is there a mass emigration of aging divorcées to exotic lands à la Eat Pray Love?
Perhaps, but my guess is it is due to higher mortality rates for unmarried women later in life. Note that the same kinds of trends show up for men as well. As you look at older and older groups of men, the likelihood of never having married and the likelihood of having divorced and not remarried both approach zero:
Note that this can’t be explained as a vestige of previous marriage rates.
While I was playing with the data, I made another chart I thought my readers would be interested in. Here is the total number of white men and women by age bracket, along with the number of singles (unmarried) in each group. Note that the age brackets are 5 year increments in the center of the data set but not at the tails.