STATISTICS SHOW THAT MARRIED PEOPLE LIVE LONGER, BUT THERE’S MUCH MORE TO THE STORY THAN JUST NUMBERS.
The person experiencing hair loss is often motivated to raise his or her game on appearance – which frequently kicks off an exercise and nutrition program with vigor. Personal health improves along with that, which we expect will increase longevity and vitality into later years.
But population longevity statistics, courtesy of the U.S. Census, tell us the strongest determinant of health and long life is marital status. So statistically speaking, “unmarrieds” (and by other indicators, the unhappily-marrieds) are likely to die younger. So if you’re single, or cohabitating, or unable to marry because you have a same-sex partner, does that mean all that running and lifting and antioxidants is for naught?
Thankfully, no. The fit person, conscious of health, always has the advantage over his couch potato counterpart – regardless of marital status. The stats are heavily skewed by unhealthy behaviors that, by the numbers, occur more frequently among unmarried people across the broad spectrum of society. In general, statistics are never an absolute predictor of individual outcomes. Further, some of the benefits of marriage can be conferred onto singles – which is a very good thing, considering how single adults comprise 42 percent of the U.S. population over the age of 18 (approximately 93 million people).
Let’s dissect the factors that give married people a statistical leg up. It could even the playing field just a bit for those of us who are technically single.
Why married men and women (statistically) live longer
Fortunately, some key studies that give us this broad pronouncement (marriage = healthier), provide a bit more detail to go on. The Rand Corporation’s Center for the Study of Aging provides a research brief that looks at multiple studies on this topic, and concludes that there are unanswered questions as to why marriage correlates with longer life in men. Some men with healthy habits marry as a matter of course, while other men who are less healthy seem to get married as a survival mechanism. Men who are single at middle age, regardless of reason, tend to smoke and drink more; cohabitation with a partner modifies that behavior and leads him to seek health care more frequently.
Another Rand brief on “the marriage benefit” to women reveals something else. Here it boils down to money, insurance and survivor benefits. Married women generally are more likely to have better access to healthcare, usually through a spouse’s employer’s plan. Additionally, the death of a husband generally means the continuation of that economic status for widows, who enjoy lower death rates than divorced women (who generally lose financial assets and benefits).
Which brings us back to people who are not technically married. If they live in an unrecognized relationship, or live alone, do they necessarily get sick younger and die sooner?
For both genders, access to healthcare is key. Sometimes, couples who cohabitate, gay and straight, are given partner health insurance by their employers; this is relatively new but growing practice. But if a person lacks that, he or she needs to avert negative life factors, such as depression, a propensity to live in isolation, to smoke and to drink in excess.
Healthy relationships: The best medicine
And that can be accomplished, according to Dr. Ernesto J. Fernandez, a doctor of oriental medicine (DOM) and licensed mental health counselor. Dr. Fernandez works with patients dealing with addictions, trauma and high stress, experience that tells him that relationships have positive and negative effects on health. Also, that relative isolation for individuals is indeed challenging and needs to be addressed with proactive strategies.
“I see a lot of people who have a network of professional friends, but not real friends,” he says. “I have also seen where disease can progress because of a bad relationship,” suggesting that being in a relationship is no panacea, that in fact a relationship can have “a dark side.”
So if a person is single and isolated, how can it be rectified? “Understand how they got there,” says Dr. Fernandez. “They might be a workaholic, or experienced betrayal in a past relationship. They need to meet other people like themselves. This can happen in 12-step-like groups, in churches, veterans groups and places online. Or just find people with common interests.” He cites how pottery classes and clubs are often places for women to connect. An interest in sp orts or science or hunting might be another connector for people.
Smart eating and exercise can be social, too. The individual who partakes in those endeavors will also tend to smoke and drink less, and be well read on health topics enough to know when to seek medical treatment.
Are these non-marital relationships as good as being married? “No,” says Dr. Fernandez, “but if you find people who will listen to you, it helps.” The same can be said about exercise and nutrition.