Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Marital Status and Long-Term Illness in Great Britain

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Marital Status and Long-Term Illness in Great Britain

Article excerpt

MIKE MUROHY London School of Economics and Political Science


King's College*

This study investigates the relationship between health and marital status, focusing particularly on older persons, using data on reported longterm illness rates from the Samples of Anonymised Records (SARs) drawn from the British Census. Until about age 70, long-term illness rates are generally lowest for those in first marriage, followed by the remarried, with intermediate values for the widowed and divorced, and highest for the single. Beyond age 75 for both sexes, single people in the private household population report the lowest illness rates, but when the institutionalized population is included, single people at older ages no longer appear to be the healthiest group. This is because at older ages increasingly high proportions of those with longterm illness are in institutions, disproportionately so for single people, explaining why such crossovers have been found in analyses of private household populations. The health status of cohabiters is generally closer to the married than to other groups for both sexes.

Key Words: Great Britain, health, marital status, older persons.

In 1858 William Farr, of the English General Registrar's Office, observed that "if unmarried people suffer from disease in undue proportion, the have-been-married suffer still more.... Marriage is a healthy estate" (Farr,1858).

Since then numerous studies have lent support to Farr's conclusion. Married people have been found to have the best mental and physical health, followed by the single (never married) and then the "have-been-married" (Hu & Goldman, 1990; Ross, Mirowsky, & Goldsteen, 1990; Umberson, 1992; Verbrugge, 1979; Wyke & Ford, 1992). The health advantage of the married generally has been found to persist even when age, health behaviors, marital acquisition variables (material resources acquired through marriage), and other relevant sociodemographic factors are controlled for. Moreover, this advantage has been found in studies using a wide range of health indicators, including mortality, work disability, hospital admissions and length of hospital stay, and both acute and chronic limiting conditions (Lillard & Waite, 1995). However, although this topic has been extensively researched and the results of many studies are broadly consistent with Farr's pioneering analysis, a number of large, welldesigned investigations have found no statistically significant associations between marital status and mortality, morbidity, or disability in the populations studied (Lentzner, Pamuk, Rhodenhiser, Rothenberg, & Powell-Griner, 1992; Stinner, Byun, & Paita, 1990; Welin et al., 1985). Most of these latter studies have been of older populations, and a number of important questions about the relationship between health and marital status in later stages of the life span remain unanswered or unclear.


Much of the research specifically on relationships between marital status and health at older ages has been based on relatively small samples that have limited the analyses possible, or the research has considered only one group, such as the widowed. Research on some subgroups, such as cohabitors, is lacking. Some studies suggest that the relationship between health and marital status may be weaker in older age groups than for those in midlife (Litwak & Messeri, 1989). The analysis by Goldman, Korenman, and Wiseman (1995) of the U.S. Longitudinal Study of Aging, a relatively large national sample of the private household population, found that never-married women had better health outcomes than their married counterparts, a result the authors attributed to their supportive social environment.

Gender Differences in Relationships Between Marital Status and Health

Gender and age variations in the relationship between marital status and health also have been reported in a number of studies, although again both the extent and the reason for such variations are not wholly clear. …

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