Though it may make intuitive sense that long-term committed relationships lead to healthier behaviors (i.e., looking out for one another), the actual data is even more compelling. For example, a research team reported stark differences in survival rates between married and unmarried men and women.
In their study, the researchers expressed these differences in terms of the likelihood of dying in the next year depending on whether you are married or not at ages 25, 50 and 65. They further analyzed the disparity in survival rates between men and women based on their marital status.
Some of the results were eye-opening:
First, at age 50, the odds ratio of an unmarried man dying in the next year was 2.5 times higher than a married man of the same age. For 50-year-old unmarried women, the odds ratio was 1.9 times higher than a similar aged married female.
Second, men seemed to receive a greater survival benefit at every age evaluated compared to women, although the gap in survival benefit declined with age.
What accounted for why men seem to benefit more than women? The researchers offered no definitive answers, but reported the speculations of previous researchers looking at the same topic: “We also find the theoretical case for gender differences in the protective effects of marriage to be more persuasive, supported by evidence of both a gender tendency towards health-threatening behavior by unmarried men than by unmarried women, greater monitoring of men’s health promoting behavior by wives than by husbands, and greater social support and social integration provided by wives to husbands than vice versa.”
Next, there appeared to be greater survival benefit to both men and women the earlier that marriage occurred. For example, men who were unmarried at age 25 had a 4.5 times higher odds ratio of dying within the next year as married 25-year-olds in comparison to the 2.5 times higher odds ratio for 50-year-olds described above.
Conversely, the older we get, the marriage survival benefit seemed to lessen. At age 65, the odds ratio of dying in the next year for an unmarried man was 1.21 times that of a married man. Among unmarried women, the odds ratio was 1.16 compared to married women.
And the marriage survival benefit seemed to disappear altogether for men at age 84 and women at age 89 (may we all live so long!).
How did the researchers arrive at their findings? Well, to be honest, it took one very tall glass of red wine (think Resveratrol, folks) and a full hour to dig through the 26 pages of the researcher’s linear regression treatise to cull out the gist of their method.
Basically, it came down to this: The researchers took advantage of self-reported survey data from an ongoing long-term lifestyle survey known as the Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP) that involved roughly 250,000 American households. They then compared this information with data they queried from the Social Security Administration on those households to determine reported deaths and other demographic information (so much for confidentiality and privacy). They then conducted all manner of linear regression models comparisons to determine whether any statistically significant relationships existed among the data they collected.
In addition to noting the correlation between marriage and survival rates, the researchers also found significant correlations between education level achieved, income level, whether one was actively employed and whether one was receiving disability compensation or not.
For example, graduating from high school had a demonstrable survival benefit compared to dropping out. Interestingly, though, achieving higher levels of education (college degree, graduate degree) did not confer statistically significant survival advantages compared to high school graduates.
One other finding that was interesting — there appeared to be no statistically significant differences in survival rates among unmarried men or women regardless of the reason they were unmarried (never married, widowed, divorced/separated).
So as you toss your workout shoes into your gym bag, swallow your morning vitamins and down that yogurt, banana and peanuts on the way to work, remember to embrace your spouse on the way out the door. Getting married and staying married (whether it is your first or subsequent marriage) might just be the final piece of your own peak health puzzle! A thought especially appropriate as Valentine’s Day approaches.
 Rendall MS, et al. The Protective Effect of Marriage for Survival: A Review and Update. Demography. April 28, 2011 [Epub ahead of print].