Marriage and Longevity

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?

Lily shared a link the other day to a post on The Atlantic Daily Dish titled Longevity Myths. They quote a larger interview in The Atlantic with the authors of The Longevity Project:

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.

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10 Responses to Marriage and Longevity

  1. Lavazza says:

    “Men who got and stayed divorced, on the other hand, were at really high risk for premature mortality.”

    It can be that divorced men lose a lot of their health and security net but it can also be that women divorce their husbands when there are signs of unhealth.

  2. A couple of thoughts on why men who get divorced and stay that way have higher mortality:

    1) Usually, it is men who are divorced by women, especially when there are kids involved. Being on the receiving end of a divorce is more stressful compared to the one who initiates it. It seems intuitive that more stress == higher mortality.

    2) A wife is often a man’s best and only friend. When she leaves, a much larger chunk of his world leaves with her than the converse. She also gets to keep the kids and the house, adding to the man’s sense of dislocation.

    3) I think there are selection effects as well. the fellows who are divorced but then remarry may be happier and more self-contained whether or not they marry; these qualities make them more attractive as a marriage partner than one who is more bitter and angry.

  3. Dan in Philly says:

    This article is a pretty good example of shaping the narrative, which has been done in a way so clumsy that I do not have to see the data they mine to see through it. Their logic and rhetoric are so poor, picking this one apart is like shooting fish in a barrel.

    “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.” – See here how from the very start the state the obvious, that is people who are married, particularly men, tend to live longer, healthier, happier lives, than those who don’t. Indeed, they could have stopped there, changed the title of their article to “Marriage facts confirmed” and had a more truthful article. But they are not after truth here, they are after shaping the narrative. The title was decided before the truth was considered.

    “For example, women who got divorced often thrived.” – Wherever you see a weasel word like “Often” your BS detector should sound off. “Often” has a fuzzy and nebulous meaning, which could be anything from the majority of the cases to just a few.

    “Even women who were widowed often did exceptionally well.”- it should not be surprising widows do well as it is a foundational aspect of the Christian culture (of which this generation is a part) to care for widows. Even non-Christians will give more care and good will towards widows than divorcees, particularly the children who never had to choose between mom and dad which hurt them worse.

    “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.” I discussed “often” above, and the weasel word “troublesome” is open to be inferred by the reader. A husband who doesn’t pick up his dirty socks can be “troublesome,” as can drug addicts, criminals, alcoholics, abusers, gambling addicts, etc. While it may be true that those who get rid of their alcoholic husbands may do as well as married (note they DO NOT SAY better), this is just a subset of all married women who get rid of their husbands, and they are presented as typical and representative of them all.

    “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.” – again we find a result which agrees with all historical data and common sense, that men who are not married do worse than men who marry. Again they do not look at all divorced men, but a subset of them, those who do not remarry. The key fallacy you see in all of this correlation equating with causation. The men who do not remarry are more likely to have reasons for not remarrying, such as financial issues, health/mental issues, or be one of the “troublesome” set of druggies/criminals, etc as seen above.

    Of course showing how much better the women they present do after marriage than men simply is a reference to the meme that marriage is better for men than women and thereby implying that marriage exploits women, women are better than men, etc.

    They could have taken the exact same data they presented and written the following:

    “Longevity fact confirmed: Marriage is good for men and women in almost all cases. While the benefits are most pronounced for men in good marriages, even women in bad marriages fared no worse than women who got rid of alcoholic, abusive, criminal husbands. The data are clear, women are almost always better off staying with “The devil they know” than taking chances by leaving their husbands, even a bad one is far better than none at all.

    As for men, those who get divorced often get remarried and enjoy the benefits of marriage again. Those who don’t fare more poorly, though it is likely that the same problems which caused their marriage to fail and them to be unable to find new spouses also contributed to their declining health, rather than the simple absence of their former spouse per se.”

    Shaping the narrative, the refuge of the poor rhetoritician trying to push a dying meme.

  4. Viliam Búr says:

    I am not sure if statistics like “people who did X live longer” are valid. How do you calculate number of people who realistically WANTED to do X, only they died sooner? These people influence the results — if they live shorter, they fall into “not X” group, but if they live longer, they fall into “X” group.

    Imagine a model where everyone lives a random length of time between 0 and 100 years, everyone gets married at 30 (if they live long enough), and there is absolutely no influence of marriage on length of life. What happens if we calculate the average life in this model? People who died after 30 belong into “married” group, and their average life is 65 years. People who died before 30 belong into “not married” group, and their average life is 15 years. So it seems like getting married gives you 50 years of life.

    If someone points out the absurdity of counting 15 year olds into “not married” group, we can be generous and only could people 18 and older. Still, the average life in “not married” group will be 24, which is much less than 65 in “married” group.

    All these results do not mean that “marriage is good for your health”, they only mean that “people who died before marriage died younger than people who died after marriage”. So how do we separate this effect from the REAL influence of marriage?

  5. Eric says:


    Regarding the men who got and stayed divorced and their higher mortalities: an important factor needs to be addressed. About 75% of divorces are initiated by women and probably half of the rest by men on the women’s behalf. Divorce is obviously much more emotionally stressing on men, who usually lose everything (including their children); and the trauma of betrayal by someone they intimately trusted.

    The rate of suicides and psychiatric breakdowns among divorced men is also high; our culture, of course, reflexively blames and shames divorced men regardless of circumstances.

    The fact that women live in relative serenity after divorce speaks mostly to women’s emotional indifference to men— even ones with whom they’ve lived and had children . Another by-product of feminist cultural norms that inculcate women with the ideals of male expendability.

  6. Jack Amok says:

    Dalrock and Dan in Philly have it right. The weasel words mean this story is an attempt at spin. Either a deliberate attempt, or else the author is so clueless about statistics that she couldn’t write anything useful anyway.

    One think not to overlook about longevity for married couples is the concept of having someone there to care for you when you’re temporarily sick. The older you get, the more dangerous a routine illness or accident becomes, because your body just isn’t as resiliant. A little bit of care has a beneficial effect. Plus, if you pass out and you live with someone, you don’t lay there on the floor for a week. Your spouse calls 9-1-1 and gets you to the hostpital.

  7. Badger says:

    I saw the following on Athol’s site and wanted to ping Dalrock:

    “Should he get embroiled with an affair and end up dumping the first wife, there’s only a 3% chance that his affair partner will end up being is second wife. Affairs rarely turn into permanent relationships.”

    I’m curious if alimony skews these numbers, because alimony law creates a perverse incentive for a woman to not remarry lest she lose the salary she gets paid to not be her ex-husband’s wife (alimony is really such bullshit). The law is clearly outdated on this point, in today’s world there’s no stigma for shacking up, especially after a divorce, so remarriage is not a good indicator of one’s rehabilitated social worth (and women justify alimony as compensating them for their alleged social disability).

    So I’ve got figure that 3% number is higher when you take unmarried LTRs and shackups into account, which are really marriage-by-any-other-name relationships.

  8. Uncle Elmer says:

    “The data tell a different story.”

    Oh God, make it stop! What’s next? “The statistics paint a grim picture.”?

  9. anon. says:

    Regarding who divorces whom, I read somewhere that while women are more like to initiate divorce, this is often due to infidelity by the husband or by the husband’s initiation of a separation. Men force women to take the initiative for the final step it seems. Another factor is emotional and physical abuse by the husband. I don’t think this is an issue of women divorcing men at the first sign of ill-health.

  10. Badger says:


    To be quite frank you are dead wrong. That “women are just divorcing bad men” a huge canard floating around the discussion. Dalrock did a post that I can’t seem to find exploring a large set of divorce data, and found that the number of female-initiated divorces that have adultery, abuse and neglect involved are absurdly small. It’s sobering but true – a large proportion of women are just plain walking out on their husbands.

    Feel free to post the “somewhere” that you read what you did; Dalrock has hard data on his side.

    We just need to accept the fact that married women as a whole don’t seem to feel the need to uphold their marital promises to the degree men are expected to (and often coerced to do so by divorce courts after the marriage is over). Dalrock has also exposed time and time again how culture sells women on divorce every day of the year.

    [D: Thanks Badger. I think the post you are thinking of is Stats on the reasons for divorce. As you say the myth that men force their wives to initiate divorce in large numbers due to abuse, abandonment, or infidelity is not born out in the data. This isn’t surprising really, since all of the books/movies/newspaper articles selling divorce to women aren’t focused on these things. They are selling empowerment, a fabulous dating life, etc.]

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