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 

Winter
2016

Unmarried Baby-Boomer Women—The Health Issues


Bryce J. Christensen and Nicole M. King


Epidemiologists have long understood that men and women in intact marriages enjoy considerable health advantages over divorced and never-married peers. It should, therefore, deeply disturb public-health officials that as the fraction of the American population that is married has dropped in recent decades, unmarried individuals have continued to suffer from a decided health deficit, when compared to peers in intact marriages. It should disturb these officials even more that by some measures, unmarried Baby Boomers actually face even greater health disadvantages than did unmarried Americans born before the Baby Boom. Unfortunately, however, a growing health deficit among unmarried Baby Boomers is precisely what researchers recently documented in a study completed at Northwestern University, the University of Michigan, and Bowling Green State University. 

Fully aware of the national retreat from marriage in recent decades, the authors of the new study set out to determine whether new marital patterns had changed the relationship between wedlock and health. To answer this question, the researchers pore over data collected from 4,574 women born between 1933 and 1942 and from 2,098 women born between 1947 and 1957. With these data, the researchers gauge the relationship between these women’s marital status and their vulnerability to chronic diseases and functional limitations. Their findings are hardly reassuring. 

The overall pattern that the researchers limn in the data is quite clear: “being currently married was associated with fewer functional limitations and risk of several chronic diseases compared to being divorced/separated, widowed, and never married.” What is more, the pattern emerges in both of the generational samples: “In both cohorts,” the researchers remark, “marriage was associated with lower disease risk and fewer functional limitations.”  

The researchers find that “all types of non-married status were significantly associated with higher levels of functional limitations compared to the married women.” Similarly, the researchers find that marital status predicted the likelihood of the chronic diseases of hypertension, diabetes, lung disease, and arthritis. For instance, “compared to married women, those who were divorced or separated were 31% more likely to have Hypertension (p < .01) . . . and those who were never married were 80% more likely to have Hypertension (p < .001).”

Among the unmarried women in the study, the divorced/separated group manifested a more consistent vulnerability to chronic diseases than did the never-married group. However, when the researchers compared the different groups of unmarried women across the generational boundary, they discovered that it was the never-married Baby Boomer women who were worse off than their peers from the earlier generation. The researchers report that “never-married Early Baby Boom women had more functional limitations, as well as greater likelihood of lung disease than their Pre-Baby Boom counterparts.”

The authors of the new study confess that they cannot say with certainty why never-married Baby Boomer women have more health problems than did their peers from the earlier generation. However, they suggest that “it is possible that the never married Pre-Baby Boomers were a more select group than the Early Baby Boomers,” as the percentage of women who never married ran higher among the Baby Boomers than it did among the women from the earlier generation.

Even if they cannot explain the pattern, the researchers recognize the troubling implications of a rising number of health problems among never-married women: “the combination of increased propensity for chronic illness and remaining single suggests that Baby Boomers may have fewer available resources for informal care in later life.”  

Understandably, the authors of this new study suggest that the relationship between marriage and marital status is a matter that their colleagues will want “to track in later members of the Baby Boom cohort, when higher rates of divorce and remaining single are even more common.”

Marriage has never counted for much among the progressives who have so decisively shaped American culture, but this new study gives those who truly care about women’s well-being reason to hope for a national reversal of the troubling retreat from wedlock.

 

(Nicky J. Newton et al., “Cohort Differences in the Marriage-Health Relationship for Midlife Women,” Social Science and Medicine 116 [2014]: 64-72.)

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