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 

Long Life!

Bryce J. Christensen and Robert W. Patterson

Want to live a long time? First, get married. Second, if you’re a woman, bear at least one child. Third, stay married. Such seems to be the implication of a study by demographers at the Centre for Population Studies, London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine. In examining data collected in 1991 and 2001 for approximately 75,000 English and Welsh men and women ages 69 to 71 in 1991, the researchers established a clear linkage between marital and childbearing history and mortality rates, a linkage that decidedly favors men and women in enduring marriages and women who have experienced childbirth.

By poring over data retrieved from the Office for National Statistics Longitudinal Study, the London scholars identify “evidence for both protection and selection effects” of wedlock. That is, they find evidence suggesting both that marriage itself protects the married from premature death and that those who already enjoy longevity-fostering personal characteristics are especially inclined to marry. The combination of marital protection and marital selection translates into marital advantage in longevity. “Relative to men in long-term first marriages,” the researchers write, “never-married men, widowers with varying durations of widowerhood, men divorced for between 10 and twenty years, and men in long-term remarriages had raised mortality 1991–2001.”

When looking at the data for women, the researchers limn a similar pattern: “Women divorced within the last ten years had the highest mortality relative to women in long-term first marriages. Mortality was also raised among other divorced women, all widows, the never-married and the currently remarried who had previously been divorced” (albeit with statistical exceptions to this general pattern discernible “among [women] who had remarried following widowhood or those already remarried by 1971 (whose prior marital status cannot be determined)”).

While enduring wedlock shows up in this study as a statistical predictor of long life for both men and women, childbearing emerges as a predictor of longevity for women. As might be expected, given the biological strain that childbearing involves, the London researchers found that “women who had had five or more births had raised risks of mortality and of long-term illness in 1991 and 2001.” However, at a time when a growing number of women deliberately forego childbearing to pursue educational and career goals, it may be of interest that “nulliparous women [i.e., women who have never given birth] had raised mortality risks and women who had had only one birth had raised odds of long-term illness in 1991.”

A research report that enduring marriage and childbearing predict long life and that singleness, divorce, and deliberate childlessness may mean early death will not be welcome news to American men and women in full retreat from both wedlock and family life.

(Emily M. D. Grundy and Cecilia Tomassini, “Marital History, Health and Mortality among Older Men and Women in England and Wales,” BMC Public Health 10 [September 15, 2010]: 554.)