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 

“Grow Old Along with Me”—The Wedlock Advantage

Bryce J. Christensen and Nicole M. King

Robert Browning could not have anticipated this modern age when he wrote his famous dramatic monologue “Rabbi Ben Ezra.” Yet twenty-first-century adults have very good reason to reflect on what the title character of that poem says to his beloved companion: “Grow old along with me / The best is yet to be, /The last of life, for which the first was made.” Social scientists increasingly recognize that men and women in intact marriages face much better prospects in their later years than do their unmarried peers. 

Marriage indeed captures the attention of University of Chicago scholars Jaclyn S. Wong and Linda J. Waite in their recent review of research on the health of Americans during the final third of their lives. To be sure, marriage is not the only social relationship Wong and Waite recognize as beneficial to the health of older Americans. In their analysis, “resource-rich networks” of various sorts benefit older Americans as they “promote good health and protect against risky health behaviors.” The scholars acknowledge that “older adults’ social networks often include relatives, friends, and co-workers,” and that all of these social connections may favorably influence health.  

Yet these two analysts emphasize that older Americans “typically spend the most time with spouses and long-term partners so the characteristics of the dyad have a particularly important impact on health.” (Given the relative fragility of cohabiting relationships, readers may suspect that Wong and Waite are yielding to the pressures of political correctness in their dubious reference to “long-term partners.”)  The Chicago scholars thus argue that “the marital relationship exerts a unique influence on health, offering protection for adverse physiological health states, and buffering the negative emotional consequences of disablement and functional decline, especially if the marriage is good.”

Scrutinizing the ways that “marriage matters for one’s health, with damaging effects from marital loss,” Wong and Waite focus on a study of “C-reactive protein (CRP), an indicator of chronic or acute inflammation.” The author of a 2009 study reports that “CRP levels were elevated in divorced and widowed men but not in married men, [so] documenting a possible physiological pathway through which being married and marital loss alter health and risk of illness.” Statistical analysis of the data from this study suggests that “for men, marital status may have a direct effect on CRP levels that remains significant after accounting for a variety of measures of health behavior and psychological stress.” This finding, the Chicago scholars believe, may indicate that “married men . . . are protected against the ups and downs of daily life relative to their unmarried counterparts,” though they acknowledge that the results of this study may reflect “gendered family roles” in which “women shoulder more emotional and caregiving burdens, typically, than men do, tempering the benefits they receive [from being married].”

However, Wong and Waite highlight research showing that intact marriages confer health advantages on women as well as men. In fact, these two scholars focus on women’s health in explaining how, on the one hand, “marital exposure may be especially important for cardiovascular risk because cardiovascular health develops slowly over time” and how, on the other hand, “marital transitions influence the metabolic system over relatively short periods of time since marital transitions may prompt fairly rapid changes in diet and physical activity.” Consequently, recent research has demonstrated that “women who had been married for a longer cumulative length of time had lower cardiovascular risk than women who had been married for shorter periods of time” while also demonstrating that “women who experienced multiple marital dissolutions were at higher metabolic risk than continuously married women.” 

In the findings of recent studies, Wong and Waite find evidence that when the marriage is a good one, “being married is associated with many health benefits,” even in hard cases. The two scholars point, for instance, to a 2011 study concluding that “older adults with poor vision were less likely to be depressed and suffer from restrictions in their daily lives if they were happily married and could count on their spouse to help.” In the same vein, they underscore a study finding that “physically-disabled older adults in higher-quality marriages were buffered from loneliness” of the sort typically found among older individuals dealing with physical disabilities.  

Sadly, however, at a time when America is graying as a nation, decades of plummeting marriage rates and stubbornly high divorce rates have left far too few in position to rejoice over research proving that “marriage shapes health” in beneficial ways.

(Jacyln S. Wong and Linda J. Waite, “Marriage, Social Networks, and Health at Older Ages,” Journal of Population Ageing 8.1-2 [2015]: 7-25.)