By THOMAS HARGROVE
Scripps Howard News Service
February 09, 2006
But the poets are wrong to suggest 'tis better to have loved and lost. Divorced people have the shortest lifespan of all.
Married men who died in 2003 had an average lifespan of 77.6 years, well above the 69.2-year average among men who've never married and 67.1-year average among divorced men, according to data from 2.2 million death certificates released this month by the National Center for Health Statistics.
Women enjoyed a similar wedlock bonus. Married women lived an average of 81 years, a significant improvement over the 77.4-year average among the never-wed and the 72-year average among divorcees.
"The pathways through which marriage protects people may be different between men and women," said Maggie Gallagher, president of the Institute for Marriage and Public Policy. "Married men behave in more responsible ways, while single men take more risks by hanging out in bars late at night, drinking too much, not eating properly.
"But for women, there are more subtle advantages like the financial benefits of marriage, better access to health care and generally less stress and fewer economic worries," Gallagher said.
The life expectancy boost from matrimony occurs among all racial and socio-economic groups.
Black males live an average of seven years longer if they get married, while married Asian women live more than six years longer than Asian women who've never wed. The smallest matrimonial gap occurs among married white women, who gain only two years over the average lifespan of never-wed Caucasian women.
College graduates, both men and women, live an average of 78.1 years if they were married, 74.4 years if never married and 68.4 years if divorced and never remarried.
Health experts have long recognized the benefits of marriage.
William Farr, a pioneering English statistician who collaborated with Florence Nightingale to promote medical reforms, first noticed the trend 150 years ago. His study of French death certificates concluded that married people - especially men - were significantly longer lived.
"Marriage is a healthy estate," Farr wrote in 1858. "The single individual is more likely to be wrecked on his voyage than the lives joined together in matrimony."
But health statisticians for decades debated what are the causes and the effects. Does marriage really make us healthy? Or are healthy people more likely to get married then are sickly people, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy in favor of matrimony?
"You'd expect that healthy men are more attractive than unhealthy men and so better able to attract mates and maintain relationships," said California statistician Stan Panis, who studied the issue for the Rand Corp. "But it turns out the opposite is often true. Men seek the protections that marriage offers, especially if they are in poor health."
If sick people are more likely to seek matrimony than healthy people, the benefits of marriage must be enormous to produce such major improvements in lifespan. "Marriage is, indeed, even more protective than people thought," Panis said.
Marriage may produce emotional benefits that enhance health in ways that are difficult to explain, experts say.
Married people are more likely than single people to be content with their lifestyles, according to a Gallup poll conducted in 2004. Sixty-one percent of married people said they generally are "very happy" compared to only 40 percent of singles.
"Married people are happier. And there is a lot of evidence that depression is a risk factor," Gallagher said. "It makes sense that if you are generally happy in life, that would be both a cause and an effect to a longer life."
But other benefits of marriage are easy to understand.
"I call it nagging. You need someone in your life to remind you to stop smoking, buckle up your seatbelt, eat some vegetables," she said. "So many of the messages in our culture say that we should be free to do whatever we want. But I think people are truly happier when they belong to somebody."
Scripps Howard News Service made the calculations from 2.2 million death certificate records from 2003 released by the National Center for Health Statistics this month. The study examined only Americans who lived to be at least 50 years of age.
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