To the question “Does marriage help you live longer?” a sour old skeptic might respond, “No, it just makes you feel older.” Well, he might get some cheap laughs, but the massive mountain of medical research proves him wrong. This mountain just got taller with the U.S. National Center for Health Statistics releasing some new data showing just how strong the life-extending benefits of marriage are.
In 2017, the age-adjusted death rate for married adults in the U.S. was 780 deaths per 100,000. The divorced and the widowed have higher rates at 1,368 and 1,657, respectively. Adults who have never married have the highest rate at 1,444. The protective nature of marriage against early death has increased by just over 7% since 2010. This is a substantial difference that marriage makes in contributing to a longer, healthier life.
But this latest study is not new news. The body of excellent academic and clinical research on how marriage improves nearly every measure of well-being for men, woman and their children is massive and consistent. I can find a nice summary of this body of research from a diverse collection of university scholars in “Why Marriage Matters” from Family Scholars.
Having studied this research for nearly 25 years and written three books on the subject, I am only aware of one major personal well-being measure that marriage doesn’t improve over being single, cohabiting, divorced or widowed. I explain that below.
What makes this even more interesting is that the scientific, medical community has known about this fact for a very long time. All the way back in 1936, a health researcher mentioned in the Psychiatric Quarterly that “it was observed at least a century ago that the incidence of (mental disease) varied by marital status” with married individuals having markedly lower rates than the single, divorced or widowed. And this collection of research has only become more robust as the decades have clicked by and the research methodologies have become more sophisticated and rigorous. Let me offer a quick historical survey of some of the strongest findings over the decades.
A systematic review of over 130 empirical academic medical studies was published by the National Council on Family Relations in 1982. It concluded with great clarity that:
The published research on personal well-being reveals a consistent pattern: Married individuals … experience less stress and emotional pathology than their unmarried counterparts. Studies of alcoholism, suicide, mortality and morbidity, schizophrenia, other psychiatric problems, and self-reported happiness generally support this thesis.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in 2004, based on national data it collected from nearly 128,000 U.S. adults over the years of 1999 and 2002, that married men and women were generally healthier across a wide variety of well-being measurements compared with their peers of any other marital status. This was true regardless of age, sex, race, education or income level. As referred to earlier, the one exception was that married adults, especially men, tended to be more overweight than never-married peers. Even if they are not “fat and healthy,” the marrieds are more likely to be “fat and happy.” The CDC summarized their findings:
In general, married adults were the least likely to experience health problems and the least likely to engage in risky health behaviors (with the notable exception of being overweight or obese) compared with adults in other marital status groups.
Even when interestingly obscure measures of health are measured, we find marital status having a significant impact, creating a substantive divide between the healthy and the unhealthy. Take cancer in general. It has long been found that cancer patients, all other things being equal, have much more successful recoveries when married compared to their single, divorced or cohabiting peers. One study found the benefit of being a married cancer patient was equal to the benefit of being in an age category 10 years younger. That is a truly significant boost. A 2016 study examining over 13,000 patients with pancreatic cancer between 1998 and 2012 found that married patients had much higher recovery and survival rates than their fellow patients who were not married. These scholars explain some of the reasons.
Patients who are married display less distress, depression, and anxiety than their unmarried counterparts, as a partner can share the emotional burden and provide appropriate social support. Marital status may also affect adherence to medical recommendations, leading to better compliance with treatment, delivery of treatment at more highly recognized centers, and acceptance of more aggressive treatment, all of which may result in better cancer control.
It’s not just having the help and support of a spouse to encourage and comfort the patient. Their presence seems to have a real, positive, healing impact upon the body. They explain: “There is also evidence that a lack of psychosocial support and psychological stress alters immune function and contributes to tumor progression and mortality.”
All of this research and more validates what we have read in the wisdom of Scripture for thousands of years. At the beginning of man’s creation, God declared it was not good for the man to be alone. God’s answer was woman, the man’s spouse. And the great wisdom of Ecclesiastes tells us clearly that two are better than one, for if they find each other in trouble, one will lift up the other, and when they sleep together as husband and wife, they keep each other warm.
Marriage is a powerful institution in amazingly unexpected ways.