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Statistics on Marriage and Health Debunked

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The advantages of getting married have been debated many times in a variety of contexts like, for example, that of whether or not homosexuals should be legally permitted to marry and, therefore, afforded the legal, tax and financial benefits thereof. The health advantages, however, have statistically been viewed as less debatable throughout history until now as new research recently presented at the British Cardiovascular Society conference highlights “modifiable risk factors” for single people like high blood pressure and type-two diabetes suffer higher rates of mortality than married people who have the same conditions.

Marriage, however, maintains a correlation to a lower risk of depression, a longer life, fewer strokes and heart attacks. These statistics on marriage as a sort of lifesaver are being debunked at this point with a new study emerging that challenges even more things. Similarly, marriage has been statistically correlated with a greater risk of weight gain, another debunked statistic. In lieu of the older research, a new study published this month in Social Science Quarterly highlights several reasons why marriage is actually not a healthcare buffer.

Married people only had the edge in relationships that had lasted ten years or more, and only among women — an effect that “was completely attenuated among women in the youngest birth cohort,” wrote Dmitry Tumin, author of the study and Ohio State University sociology researcher.

On one hand, it is a possibility that the most significant change has been the manner in which research is conducted as scholars use more and more complex means of sorting prospectively obfuscating factors. However, Tumin says, the latest evidence illustrating that marriage barely influences health “may reflect demographic and cultural trends that have undermined the protective effects of marriage.” 

For starters, Campbell says, “fewer Americans than ever are getting married, and the age at first marriage is steadily rising. There has also been a rise in people seeking social and economic support via sources other than a spouse, such as living with parents longer, or in long-term roommate situations.

“Meanwhile, the stigma in remaining unmarried is declining, and single people — especially women — have experienced increasing economic freedom over the past few decades,” Campbell continues. “In other words, women may indeed have seen health improvements with marriage in the past because it provided a level of economic security that many women are now able to access on their own. But it’s not just that singledom is healthier than it used to be (especially for women) — maybe it’s that marriage has become more stressful.”

Essentially, this points to the likelihood of married women seeing health improvements historically due to its level of economic security whereas the modern, single woman has access to that same level of economic security now. Even so, being single isn’t necessarily healthier than it once was for women so much as marriage is more stressful than it once was.

“Work-family conflict has increased in the closing decades of the 20th century, and spouses’ actual time spent together has decreased over this period,” wrote Tumin. “Against a backdrop of greater demands at home and at work, and less time spent together, today’s married couples may indeed experience marriage more as a source of conflict and stress than as a resource that safeguards their health.”

Campbell says, “Of course, lumping all married people into one category is a pretty broad approach, and the quality of the marriage may be a more important predictor of health than the mere fact of its existence. Some studies comparing the effects of ‘happy’ marriages with ‘unhappy’ ones have found that people in an unsatisfying union have an increased risk of heart attack or stroke when compared with those living in wedded bliss.”

“It may be the case that in the most recent birth cohorts, when only the most affluent people marry, there could be little change in health after getting married because the health of people who marry is already very good before marriage,” Tumin said. His study also exemplified the particularly perturbing, marital trend of declining marriages among the lower socioeconomic class of citizens. It’s possible that this is obscuring marriage’s protective effects in light of one-percenters also usually being healthier.

“It may be the case that in the most recent birth cohorts, when only the most affluent people marry, there could be little change in health after getting married because the health of people who marry is already very good before marriage,” Tumin said.

Another caveat is that the study doesn’t include any data gathered from same-sex marriages. But based on the current data, Tumin said, “It seems unlikely that marriage of any kind would directly cause large improvements in health in recent birth cohorts.”

Sociologist Bella DePaulo studies single people, and she has previously explained on Science of Us, “It’s just ridiculous to think that single life is … a life of sadness and bad outcomes.” Here’s one more piece of evidence that that’s true.

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