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 

Wednesday, October 19, 2016 (Volume 4: Issue: 36)

The Topic: Divorced Boomers, Broke and Sick 

The News Story: Divorce is Destroying Retirement

The New Research: “Grow Old Along with Me”—The Wedlock Advantage

 

The News Story: Divorce is Destroying Retirement

The Baby Boomer generation divorced in record numbers during the 1970s and 1980s; now, as they should be entering their retirement and enjoying the fruits of their labors, the impact is hitting—hard.

A recent report by Bloomberg analyzed the effect of divorce on retirement-age Americans, and the statistics are sobering. Divorce may be the reason that “about one in five Americans over 65 is working—twice as many in the early 1980s and the most since the creation of Medicare.” Furthermore, “[n]ew research suggests this increased monetary stress also plays an outsized role in pushing older women back into the workforce.” Only 3.4% of Americans over 62 years of age who have never divorced are poor. In comparison, “16 percent of single people divorced before age 50 are poor, and 19 percent of single people divorced after 50 are poor.”

The financial blow is striking, and finances aren’t the only thing that takes a hit when couples divorce—older divorced Americans also have worse health than do their never-divorced peers.

(Source: Ben Steverman, “Divorce is Destroying Retirement,” Bloomberg, October 17, 2016.)

 

The New Research: “Grow Old Along with Me”—The Wedlock Advantage

Robert Browning could not have anticipated 21st-century America when he wrote his famous dramatic monologue “Rabbi Ben Ezra.” Yet 21st-century America has 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.” For 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 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.” 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 this 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.”

However, Wong and Waite also 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.

(Source: Bryce J. Christensen and Nicole M. King, “New Research,” The Natural Family 30.3 [2016]. Study: 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.)