It’s Loneliness Awareness Week and our Sam, wellbeing warrior, investigates whether married people live longer. Over to you Sam.
Apparently, they do. According to one of my smug married friends, people who tie the knot live quite a lot longer. Being married myself, and knowing that most statistics are utterly made up, I might have ignored this comment but said smug-married-friend was addressing a teary-eyed newly single friend.
So, like a dog with a bone I set out to discover, once and for all, whether married people really do live longer.
If you’re of a certain age you might remember this little ditty:
"Love and marriage, love and marriage, Go together like a horse and carriage. This I tell you, brother, You can't have one without the other." Frank Sinatra
Quite a lot has changed, obviously, since the horse and cart days. And when it comes to marriage, there have been enormous changes; lots of people find love without getting hitched, many marriages turn bitter or loveless, and divorce rates since Frank Sinatra’s time have soared. Single parenting is common and some of my friends are exploring polyamory or cohabitation (well some say it takes a village to raise a child). As a society, we’re becoming more and more comfortable with different types of relationships. That’s good news. But, and there is a but, as our expressions of love take much more varied patterns than simply ‘husband and wife’, it’s tricky to keep a record and to provide reliable statistics.
‘Why is this important?’, I hear you ask.
Because when we ask the question ‘do married people live longer?’, the answer according to research is a resounding yes. I could list all the studies I’ve read but I won’t bore you (if you’re really interested I’ve popped some of them right at the bottom under references 1, 2, 3, & 4). Numerous studies over the last 140 years have shown that married people tend to live longer, in particular men. This is mainly because of a historic - and arguably exaggerated - analytical bias towards the benefits of marriage. One researcher, who shan’t be named, said:
“Men have fewer skills than women in terms of looking after themselves.”
Maybe back in the day of horse and cart that might have been true, but it bothered me that the research made a wildly sweeping statement about all men. What about same-sex marriages? What about people who are happily life-partners without getting wed? What about people who are non-binary and don’t identify with being a ‘man’? What about Henry VIII who founded the Church of England so he could annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon? I get it. I might be tempted to start a religious institution to avoid spending time with a few of my friends’ spouses. But I digress. I found no research that considered our wonderfully varied rainbow of relationship statuses. Absolutely diddly squat.
On that note, if you know of any research (I admit I could have missed something) pop me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org
Trapping people in unhappy marriages can have profound, negative consequences. So instead of asking whether married people live longer, perhaps we should be asking – how can we live contently to a ripe old age regardless of whether we’re married or not?
Living longer? Yes, please!
Is longevity associated with being married, daily jogs, living with pets, or gobbling acai berries? The answer might be less about whether we’ve got a bit of paper saying we’re married and more about community. As human beings, we’re intensely social creatures. According to a Meta Study (a study that looks at loads of other studies), the tighter we’re embedded in a network of people, the less likely we are to become seriously ill and the higher our rates of survival .
“Whether people are married or not, strong social connections and friendship are especially important factors in healthy aging.” Martina Ratto, Cognitive Scientist
The deep-down-and-slightly-sickening-romantic in me would like to think that love sustains us above all else but alas, that’s not the case! Dr Friedman, professor of psychology and co-author of The Longevity Project, tracked 1,500 people for more than eight decades (yep, that’s a crackingly epic amount of time) and discovered that feeling loved or cared for isn’t actually crucial to living longer. Come again? What he did discover, though, is that simple involvement with others - friends, family, colleagues - increased people’s lifespans. Volunteering also seems to promote longevity (as long as we’re around other people).
Interestingly, the Meta Study I mentioned earlier also found that people who belonged to groups, such as sports clubs, hobby meetups, church, support groups, etc. reduced their risk of depression by almost 25%.
“We are social creatures who struggle when forced to live in isolation. From babies to the elderly, relationships are crucial for not only our wellbeing but also our survival.” Grace McMahon, Beingwell Life Coach
That goes some way to explaining why the last year with all of the restrictions has weighed so heavily on the majority of us. For me, it doesn’t cut the mustard seeing my ol’ mum over a wobbly-internet video call for a few minutes. I want hugs, kisses, fussing, a huge portion of her famous lasagne (which contains both sweetcorn and a whole bulb, yes bulb, of garlic), playing cards, falling asleep together watching naff telly, softness, and warmth.
During his research Dr Friedman also found that women who stayed single, got and stayed divorced or were widowed often lived longer (don’t tell my Dad that), his personal view was that they lived longer “without the burdens of husband trouble”. My view is that they had good friends instead.
Will you marry me? Marriage isn’t a guaranteed elixir for happiness and being wed doesn’t necessarily mean we’ll live longer (in your face smug-married-friend… sorry I couldn’t resist). What’s clear from copious amounts of research though is just how important it is to be around other people, to have friends, and be part of a community - especially if we want to live as long as Kane Tanaka, who is 118 years old!
Marital Status and Mortality: The Role of Health (1996). Demography.
Life expectancy and active life expectancy by marital status among older U.S. adults (2014). Medicare Health Outcome Survey (HOS).
Perils of Single Life and Benefits of Marriage (1987). Social Biology.
Physical Health Status at 36 Years in a British National Birth Cohort (1993). Social Science and Medicine.
Loneliness and Social Isolation as Risk Factors for Mortality: A Meta-Analytic Review (2015). PubMed.