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 

Another Marriage Premium: Health and Longevity

Bryce J. Christensen and Robert W. Patterson

The blessing of long life seems to be especially reserved for married men and women. Fresh evidence that wedlock protects and extends life appears in a study by health economist Kjersti Norgård Berntsen of the University of Oslo. By sifting through data collected between 1964 and 2007 for elderly Norwegians (ages 75 to 89), Berntsen identifies a solid linkage between marital status and longevity. In the age group under scrutiny, the researcher finds, “Relative to married persons, those who are never married, divorced or widowed have significantly higher mortality for most causes of death. The odds of death are highest for divorcees, followed by never married and widowed.”

Berntsen notes that “excess mortality among the non-married is higher for men than for women . . . in the beginning of the time period” studied; however, that gender gap seems to be closing. “In the time period 2000–2007, divorced, never married and widowed women had almost as high excess mortality relative to those who were married as their male counterparts.”

Married elderly Norwegians enjoy particularly pronounced mortality advantages in avoiding—or at least delaying—death from circulatory and respiratory diseases. But the data indicate that among elderly Norwegians, those who are “never married, divorced or widowed have significantly higher mortality for most causes of death” than do their married peers. What is more, the mortality-rate advantage enjoyed by the married has actually widened in recent decades. “Relative differences in mortality by marital status have increased from 1971–2007,” Berntsen concludes. “In particular, the excess mortality of the never-married women and, to a lesser extent, men has been rising.”

These findings, Berntsen recognizes, are hardly surprising; rather, they accord with “previous research [that] has shown large and increasing relative differences in mortality by marital status in several countries.” To explain this pervasive pattern, Berntsen invokes the “protective effects of marriage.” These effects, she reasons, may reflect the way “married persons are likely to benefit from various types of support “ and from the way “a spouse may exert control on behavior, offer practical help, add to the pool of knowledge and help in interpreting important information.” Further health benefits may, she suggests, spring from the way marriage confers “an economic advantage because of specialization, economies of scale and pooling of wealth.” In any case, wedlock does seem to prevent “the occurrence of a number of potentially lethal diseases.”

At a time when the United States is struggling with runaway health-care costs, this study deserves attention from American policymakers, all too many of whom currently seem indifferent to marriage.

(Kjersti Norgård Berntsen, “Trends in Total and Cause-Specific Mortality by Marital Status among Elderly Norwegian Men and Women,” BMC Public Health 11 [July 6, 2011]: 537.)