Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Marriage, Sex, and Mortality

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Marriage, Sex, and Mortality

Article excerpt

Much mortality research has focused on marital status; in general, those who are married consistently exhibit lower mortality than those who are not. Many studies have concentrated on how differences in age, sex, and marital status affect mortality. But such studies cannot illuminate the social mechanisms--for example, family income--that work together with marital status to expand or contract length of life. This study considers the literatures on family income and on the relations between marital status and mortality and attempts to articulate more clearly the relations between marital status, sex, family income, and overall and cause-specific mortality.

The lower mortality of married people has been variously attributed to their superior integration into society, to the natural selection of healthier individuals for marriage, and to the psychological and lifestyle protection afforded by marriage. Status integration theory relates low mortality to strong social bonds (Durkheim, 1951): By virtue of their spouses, married individuals are more integrated into society than unmarried ones. Selectivity theory contends that the mortality difference between married and unmarried persons is due to the selection of healthy individuals for marriage (Kisker & Goldman, 1987). If selectivity explains the marital advantage, the differences in mortality should vary with cause of death, the mortality difference being greatest among those who die of genetic diseases (or, at least, diseases that predate the marriage). But Gove (1973) found that causes of death that seem to be genetic or purely biological in origin--such as leukemia and aleukemia--were associated with little difference in mortality between married and unmarried persons. Where there did seem to be mortality differences between the married and unmarried, the causes of death had significant social or behavioral components. Gove therefore argued that marriage was more likely to function protectively than selectively in reducing mortality.

Marriage is believed to protect individuals by focusing attention on health, reducing risks, and increasing compliance with medical regimens. Those who are not married have higher rates of mortality due to drinking and smoking, risk-taking behavior, accidents, and chronic diseases such as diabetes that require regulated behavior or treatment. Generally, compared with those who are not married, married individuals eat better, take better care of themselves, and live a more stable, secure, and scheduled lifestyle (Gove, 1973; Trovato & Lauris, 1989).

Most marital status theories focus on psychological and health behavior. Yet much of the marital advantage could be due to economic and social factors (see Ross, Mirowsky, & Goldsteen, 1990; Smith & Waitzman 1994). For instance, marital status is associated with family size: By definition, married couples comprise a family of at least two, while unmarried individuals often live alone. Larger families increase the opportunities to provide their members additional social, emotional, instrumental, and financial support.

Marital status and family size are related to family income. For instance, low-income families have higher rates of marital dissolution. And female-headed families are more vulnerable to poverty than other family types. In fact, in 1990, 33.4% of female-headed families with no husband present lived in poverty, compared with just 5.7% of married-couple families (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1991). Married couples, especially those with dual incomes, enjoy economic advantages over unmarried individuals.

Although the data set Gove (1973) used did not allow for economic factors, he considered that it was "very unlikely" that economic factors would substantially affect the relation between marital status and mortality (p. 65). But mortality is affected by socioeconomic differences--a relation that has been widely studied in itself and is not unconnected with marital status. …

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