The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.

-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

Married Men, Living Longer

Bryce J. Christensen and Robert W. Patterson

The mountain of evidence indicating that marriage fosters longevity keeps growing. The latest addition to that mountain, a study by an international team of scholars from Harvard, Lausanne University, University College London, and the University of Bristol, adduced strong evidence that married middle-class British men are much more likely to live long lives than are their single peers.

To be sure, these scholars did not initially focus on wedlock: they were interested in how “social support” affects mortality and, more narrowly, in how “SES [socioeconomic status] differences in social support might account for SES differences in mortality.” To assess these issues, the researchers scrutinized social-support, economic, and mortality data collected for 9,333 British civil servants from 1985 to 2009. The researchers did not get far before marital status bobbed into view.

For instance, when the researchers were looking at the relationship between SES and social support, they discovered that men in the lowest socioeconomic category in their study were “over 5 times more likely to be unmarried than were men in the highest SES category.” The researchers also found that “men in the lowest SES category had an increased risk of death compared with those in the highest category.” But the data indicated something more interesting than the simple fact that poor men are less likely to marry and more likely to die prematurely than are affluent men. Further analysis revealed that more than one quarter of the relationship between SES and all-cause and cardiovascular mortality rates could be accounted for by differences in “network score” (a statistical measure of social ties) and marital status.

The link between marital status and mortality rates persisted even when the researchers moved away from their focus on socioeconomic status. “For all-cause mortality in men,” the researchers conclude, “being unmarried was associated with a higher mortality risk (H[azard]R[atio] = 1.770).” Even when they ran their data through a sophisticated statistical model that accounted for differences in socioeconomic status and in self-rated health, the researchers found that “there remained a 51% excess risk of death for participants who were not married or cohabiting” compared to married peers. Summing up their analysis, the researchers remark, “These data suggest that in men, not being married or cohabitating is an important risk factor for mortality.”

The researchers interpret their findings in terms of earlier studies suggesting that social support enhances health, especially by “providing resources that can be used to avoid the risk of disease, minimize their consequences, or influence health-promoting or health-damaging behaviors.” Also relevant were earlier studies indicating that “social support might have a direct impact on a range of physiologic systems, such as immune, neuroendocrine, and cardiovascular activity.” But no form of social support appeared more important to the researchers than the support that comes through marriage. “Overall,” they write, “marital status more strongly predicted mortality than did the other indicators of social support that we examined.”

(Silvia Stringhini et al., “Socioeconomic Status, Structural and Functional Measures of Social Support, and Mortality: The British Whitehall II Cohort Study, 1985–2009,” American Journal of Epidemiology 175.12 [June 2012]: 1275–1283.)