Does marriage shorten women's lives? A new study says maybe
An unwise choice for both of them?
"Cougar" actress Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher
The Web is abuzz today with the findings of a new study on “Marriage and Life Expectancy,” showing that while men benefit greatly from marriage with younger women, the same does not hold true for their spouses. In fact, according to Sven Drefahl from the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research (MPIDR) in Rostock, Germany, age differences at either end of the spectrum shorten a woman’s life.
According to the report, published in the journal Demography yesterday, the younger a man's wife, the better for him. “Related to life expectancy choosing a wife is easy for men - the younger the better,” the report states. “The mortality risk of a husband who is seven to nine years older than his wife is reduced by eleven percent compared to couples where both partners are the same age. Conversely, a man dies earlier when he is younger than his spouse. An older spouse has a negative impact on his health.”
Click to enlarge (Source: MPIDR)
It was formally believed that men who selected younger partners lived longer because they had a better self-image and a more positive outlook on life (and also benefited from a younger spouse’s caretaker role), whereas an older spouse dragged a man down to an early grave. (Drefahl already confirmed this widespread notion in a report last spring.) Scientists also thought the same held true for women.
But Drefahl’s report, which is based on a study of two million Danish couples, show that marriage is only beneficial to a woman’s life span if she chooses a partner of her own age. In fact, a woman who marries a man seven to nine years younger than she is increases her mortality by twenty percent, making younger men even more dangerous than oldtimers.
A good idea as long as they don't get married?
Scene from Laurent Cantet's 2005 film "Heading South"
What accounts for the difference? Social and psychological factors make up for a big part of it. According to Drefahl, “On average, men have fewer and lesser quality social contacts than those of women.” This means that when it comes to taking walks and enjoying life together, most women already have plenty of female friends for that sort of thing, and a man provides no net benefit. An older man with a younger wife, by contrast, benefits from his wife’s company. Moreover, “One of the few possible explanations is that couples with younger husbands violate social norms and thus suffer from social sanctions.” As a result, women’s lives become more stressful and isolated, thus shortening them by several years.
But not to worry. The report concludes that:
While the new MPIDR study shows that marriage disadvantages most women when they are not the same age as their husband, it is not true that marriage in general is unfavorable. Being married raises the life expectancy of both men and women above those that are unmarried. Women are also generally better off than men; worldwide their life expectancy exceeds that of men by a few years.
How seriously should we take Drefahl's findings? Probably not very. The raw numbers from a single country that he crunches at his institute have little to do with individual, subjective human experience. As Psychology Today wrote last month:
[W]hen you are truly in love, your age and the age of the one you love really doesn't matter for the most part. ... Our experience tells us that the closer in age two people in love are, the greater their chances of Building a Love That Lasts. Whether it is one year, five years, ten, or more, true love trumps everything else. The question really is more about "How do you know your are in love" versus "How old is the one you love?" Being IN love is far more important than an age difference between two people who purport to love each other.