Judy Mandelbaum

Judy Mandelbaum
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Editor’s Pick
MAY 13, 2010 11:37AM

Does marriage shorten women's lives? A new study says maybe

Rate: 14 Flag

  Demi Moore
An unwise choice for both of them?
"Cougar" actress Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher
(Wikipedia)

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.”

Demographic chart
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.

Heading South
A good idea as long as they don't get married?
Scene from Laurent Cantet's 2005 film "Heading South"
(Source: EW.com)

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.

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demographics, men, women, marriage

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Firestorm,
I agree! I would be fascinated to see studies like this conducted on a broader scale. The variables involved are obviously immense.
Uhhh, gay here, not a prollem! xox
Should gays be allowed to marry? Should straights get married? Should Sandra Bullock stay married? Blah, blah, blah.
The amount of time and energy spent on the construct of "marriage" probably shortens life.
I hope by the time my kids are old enough, NOBODY is getting married anymore. It's antiquated, stupid, and a recipe mostly for unhappiness (as evidenced by statistics), if not endless hand-wringing and blather.
Let's put couples therapists out of business.
END (talking about) MARRIAGE!
Here's to age-appropriate marriage!
Part of why people choose places like Denmark to study these problems is that there has been a long history of social equality and also social healthcare, strong social welfare to draw upon. They can exclude many of the factors that would be confounding here... like the fact that we don't support women and children by much, on an economic or social level, and we ostracize them and humiliate non traditional family units. Denmark has one of the highest rates of human egalitarianism, so marriage is voluntary and not necessarily preferred. Interestingly, the "old fashioned" values of being married and having more than 1 or 2 children are coming back into vogue. Despite being a christian country, most people are relatively non religious or atheist, which would again be a confounding factor.
I was a sociology major at one point in my life and could never abide by the surveys and studies on human behavior. I always questioned the survey findings and "norms". There are real people behind the stats, each with their own stories. I dropped my major, left college and became a mime.
Mimetalker,
Great choice! I think if we had more mimes and fewer sociologists, the world would be a happier place.
I have mostly dated younger men since my divorce. I have tried to date men around my age or a little older (my ex-husband was five years my senior), but things have never worked out.

My current boyfriend is eight years younger. I am happy that the older woman/younger man thing is becoming more socially acceptable. I think happiness is the key to any relationship.
Puts me in mind of my Rabbi, Rabbi Groucho: "A Man is Only as Old as the Woman He Feels."
Excellent reporting.
R.
Seems to me there are an awful lot of studies being done to justify marriage these days. The question I always ask about studies is not whether they're true, but why they're being done. Why is the society we're living in having so many doubts about marital norms that they now need to now be validated over and over and over again by science. And the most important question. Who's paying for this validation and why?
One of the problems with this sort of thing is that people who are well below average in physical or mental well-being tend not to be attractive spouse candidates. They tend not to get or stay married. So does marriage make people healthier, or is it merely that the physically and mentally healthy are more likely to get married?
I think it depends entirely on the spouse.
As the population of Denmark is 5.5 million, surely 2 million Danish couples would add up to most of the population of the country. Are there in fact that many couples in Denmark?
Matthew,
That troubled me too, but the press release says "almost 2 million," so it looks like they checked the marriage records of the entire population.
Women were encouraged to marry older men, believing men take more time to grow-up and mature.

We now know that rarely happens :) —so take the man you love regardless of his age.