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 

The Wedlock Protection against Sudden Death

Bryce J. Christensen and Nicole M. King

With dismaying frequency, relatively young American men and women suddenly and unexpectedly drop dead. But not all Americans face the same risk of such an untimely and abrupt end to life. Indeed, in a newly published study, a team of epidemiologists at the University of North Carolina conclude that men and women in an intact marriage enjoy strong protection against Sudden Unexpected Death (SUD).

To determine the antecedents of Sudden Unexpected Death, the authors of this new study examine the medical files for all of the 190 individuals younger than 65 who died suddenly and unexpectedly between March 2013 and March 2014 in Wake County, North Carolina. The researchers calculate that for the residents of Wake County between the ages of 18 and 64, the incidence of SUD for the year in question was 32.1/100,000. By compiling all of the data from the SUD files included in this study, the North Carolina scholars establish that “the majority of such deaths were unwitnessed and occurred in white, unmarried, hypertensive men with an average age of 53 years.”

The descriptor unmarried acquires its full significance only as the researchers compare the statistical profile of the 190 SUD victims in their study to the aggregate statistical profiles of all of the deceased former residents of Wake County and of all the currently living residents of the county. These statistical comparisons reveal that the men and women identified in this study as victims of SUD were “significantly less likely to be married” than were the deceased former residents of the County (33% vs. 46%; p = 0.018) and were likewise significantly less likely to be married than were the currently living residents of Wake County (33% vs. 53%; p < 0.001).  The data further establish that of the 190 SUD victims examined in this study, “only 1.5% . . . were both married and had a witnessed death.”

The North Carolina scholars do not shrink from the obvious implication of their findings: “This [analysis],” they remark, “supports the observation that marriage is a protective factor from sudden death.”  

Lamentably, the finding that marriage protects men and women against sudden and unexpected death will come as good news to all too few at a time when the marriage rate keeps dropping while the divorce rate remains stubbornly high. 

(Mary Elizabeth Lewis et al., “Estimated Incidence and Risk Factors of Sudden Unexpected Death,” Open Heart 3.1 [2016]: e000321.)