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It is a common belief that married people live longer than single people.

For example, The Telegraph reports:

Men and women who are married or in long-term relationships are more likely to survive to old age than singletons, research suggests

So stark was the difference in outcomes that those who never married or settled down with a long-term companion were more than twice as likely to die in middle age than those who had been in a stable relationship throughout their adult life.

Besides the fact that married people are involved in mandatory tasks which single people do not and these tasks shorten their real lives significantly, I was wondering do married people really live longer? If some statics confirm this, I was wondering does marriage (or having a partner) affect the life expectancy of a person, and how does marriage do that?

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@Rory variants of this claim are often in the news: here, here and here for example. The second link looks to have plenty of good leads, if anyone has time to go through it (I may do later in the week). –  Mr E Jan 24 '13 at 13:24
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I give some very simple examples. A married man has to participate in family gatherings if his wife wants it. But a single guy can do whatever he wants instead. Married women (and men) (normally) have to take care of children (besides pregnancy), singletons don't. The list goes on and on. To me it is very obvious that single people have more opportunities to live their lives the way they want. –  Vahid Shirbisheh Jan 24 '13 at 17:51
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@VahidShirbisheh Totally agree. –  Alfredo Osorio Jan 24 '13 at 18:03
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@VahidShirbisheh Singletons don't have to care for children!?!? That is simply untrue. 40% of births are to unmarried women. "A married man has to participate in family gatherings if his wife wants it" marriage isn't slavery, my dad never goes to family gatherings even though my mom wants him to. I'm single and I always go to family gatherings I don't want to go to, feeling obligated to go. Furthermore, how on earth does going to family gatherings and caring for children shorten your life significantly? –  Sam I Am Jan 25 '13 at 15:27
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"we can generally conclude that married people have less time for themselves" I'm not even close to convinced that this is the case. That might even make a good question. I cannot reasonably make that assumption. I work just as hard as my married friends, and I don't have anyone to share the chores with at home. Not to mention that we are talking about longevity here, not quality of life. Big difference. –  Sam I Am Jan 25 '13 at 20:16

2 Answers 2

up vote 13 down vote accepted

Yes, married people seem to live longer

The apparent pattern that marriage seems to be good for you was first noted in the 19th century. But it has been confirmed in many studies since, though many of those suffer because they don't adequately adjust for other risk factors and, therefore, failt to isolate the effect of being married.

But there are several accessible (ish, some are paywalled) modern studies. The Ben-Shlomo Et. Al. study in 1993 concluded (my emphasis in all quotes):

Overall mortality was greater for all groups of unmarried men. Patterns of mortality were different in the subgroups of unmarried men. Widowed men had a significantly greater risk of dying from ischaemic heart disease (relative risk(RR) 1.46,95% confidence interval (CI) 1.08, 1.97) which persisted after exclusion of deaths that occurred in the first two years. Divorced men had greater cancer mortality (RR 1.49. 95% that could not be explained simply by their greater consumption of cigarettes. The initial increased mortality for single men was no longer evident after adjustment for other risk factors, suggesting that single status in itself may not increase the risk.The risk for single men may have been underestimated, however, by over adjustment for possible intermediary factors.

So men seem to benefit from marriage (this study didn't look at female mortality). But it is worth noting that quite a lot of the risk seems to explained by known lifestyle differences between married and unmarried people. The trouble with many of these adjustments is that they are intended to estimate the independent effect of marriage. But marriage may directly lower people's desire to smoke, eat unhealthy diets and live with little exercise, so adjusting for these factors may underestimate the benefits of marriage.

A more recent review by Kaplan and Kronick in 2006 (paywalled, unfortunately) supports those conclusions. The abstract summarises:

Controlling for demographic and socioeconomic characteristics, the death rate for people who were unmarried was significantly higher than it was for those who were married and living with their spouses. Although the effect was significant for all categories of unmarried, it was strongest for those who had never married. The never married effect was seen for both sexes, and was significantly stronger for men than for women.

Many studies show that the benefit of marriage seems to be larger for men than women (which is only fair as women already live significantly longer ;-) ). A recent (2011) Swiss study (also paywalled) concludes:

The benefit of being married was stronger for men than for women; however, mortality patterns were similar, with higher mortality in divorced and single individuals compared with widowed individuals (<80 years). After adjustment for living arrangements, the gender difference by marital status disappeared. Stratification by living arrangement revealed that mortality risks were highest for 45–64-year-old divorced (HR 1.72 (95% CI 1.67 to 1.76)) and single men (HR 1.67 (95% CI 1.63 to 1.71)) who lived alone. In women of the same age, the highest mortality risk was observed for those who were single and living with a partner (HR 1.70 (95% CI 1.58 to 1.82)). In older age groups, the impact of marital status decreased.

So there appears to be some benefit to women of marriage, though not as much as for men.

A BBC news story summarised much of the evidence thus:

Those who had never married were at greater risk than those who were separated or divorced.

Indeed, the risks of being never married, in terms of odds, rival the risks of having increased blood pressure or high cholesterol.

Never marrieds were 58% more likely to have died than peers who were married and living with their spouse in 1989.

Those who had been widowed were almost 40% more likely to die, and those who had been divorced or separated were 27% more likely to die.

But you have to be careful using those numbers, as the BBC don't report the underlying mortality rate for the groups (a group having a 2% chance of death per year when married might have a 3% change when unmarried giving a 50% higher mortality).

So current evidence suggests being married is good for you, perhaps partially because married people behave in more healthy ways.

NB I expect the literature should contain some good quality meta-analyses and reviews, but I have not yet found any. I will add references if and when I do.

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This is based on observational data, thus you cannot draw cause-effect conclusions. There is likely a confounding factor, for example that healthier people get married (junkie schizophrenics don't get married). Would need experiments to show cause. Probably immoral to do so! –  Neil McGuigan Feb 19 '13 at 20:00
    
@NeilMcGuigan True, but the question didn't ask about causality. And the data is not entirely silent on causality, though not strong either. –  matt_black Feb 19 '13 at 23:23
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@matt_black Then don't do the causation creep: "benefit from marriage", "marriage seems to be good for you". –  Ruben Jul 12 '13 at 13:36

The main article I could find on this is a 2008 article. 1 This study actually measures "self-rated health" which is then used by news agencies as a surrogate for life expectancy.

So the link between life expectancy and being married depends on the quality of this surrogate variable. (I can't find the sample size anywhere, which makes interpreting that a little tricky).

The key finding is that married people do rate themselves as healthier than single people.

This could be because married life is happier than single life, so people of the same health are likely to rate themselves as healthier due to a kind of mental illusion.

It could be that the benefits of being married - regular sex, more regular home cooked food, perhaps even trying to stay in shape for your partner - do lead to a real effect.

If this were Mythbusters, I'd go with "Plausable".

1 The Times They Are a Changin’: Marital Status and Health Differentials from 1972 to 2003 by Hui Liu and Debra J. Umberson; J Health Soc Behav. 2008 September; 49(3): 239–253. (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3150568/)

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You could argue various other things, like: A) Single people are more likely to stay in shape in order to find a partner, B) Healthier people are more likely to get married, C) Divorcees may be affected by stress and depression and their health is more likely to suffer. I'm just making these up. I personally think the claim is plausible, but it seems very difficult to investigate well –  Mr E Jan 24 '13 at 13:13
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The paper linked shows self-rated health drops severely for widow(er)s. Also, the gap is actually quite small - divorced / separated people are lower down though. This is why I wanted to find a sample size - no standard error is reported! The gap could be utterly meaningless. Paragraphs 4 and 5 are pure speculation. –  Arkady Jan 24 '13 at 14:07
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Married people have "more regular home cooked food" than single people? I have no reason to suspect that, nor do I have a reason to suspect home cooked food is inherently more healthy than take-out. –  Sam I Am Jan 24 '13 at 17:53
    
We can propose so many pseudo-reasons to support both sides of the discussion and none of these arguments looks scientific. –  Vahid Shirbisheh Jan 24 '13 at 18:08
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@Arkady: "regular sex"....ROTFLMAO....You must not be married and have kids. –  Dunk Jan 24 '13 at 21:27

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