Do the Married Really Live Longer? the Role of Cohabitation and Socioeconomic Status

By Drefahl, Sven | Journal of Marriage and Family, June 2012 | Go to article overview

Do the Married Really Live Longer? the Role of Cohabitation and Socioeconomic Status


Drefahl, Sven, Journal of Marriage and Family


Numerous studies have shown that married women and men experience the lowest mortality. Legal marital status, however, does not necessarily reflect today's social reality because individuals are classified as never married, widowed, or divorced even when they are living with a partner. Denmark is one of the forerunners of developments in coresidential partnerships and one of only a few countries where administrative sources provide individual-level information on cohabitation for the whole population. Using register information from Statistics Denmark on 3,888,072 men and women ages 18-65, the author investigated mortality differences by living arrangement with hazard regression models. Overall, premature mortality was found to be lowest for married persons, followed by cohabiting persons. Adjusting for socioeconomic status reduced excess mortality of nonmarried individuals. Moreover, a mortality-crossover effect emerged in which cohabiters with above-average socioeconomic status had a lower risk of dying than married people. This finding was particularly pronounced for men.

Key Words: cohabitation, living arrangement, marital status, mortality, socioeconomic status.

William Farr (1 858) was one the first researchers who recognized that marital status is a predictor of life expectancy. Since his time, a long line of studies have confirmed this result and showed that marriage is a positive health factor (e.g., Johnson, Backlund, Sorlie, & Loveless, 2000; Lillard & Waite, 1995; Macintyre, 1986; van Poppel & Joung, 2001; Verbrugge, 1979). A recent review article in which the authors pooled more than 50 independent publications published between 1994 and 2007 concluded that the relative mortality risk for married versus nonmarried elderly individuals was 0.88 (Manzoli, Villari, Pirone, & Boccia, 2007). The results were similar for men and women and did not vary between Europe and North America. Among nonmarried individuals, relative mortality risks were highest for separated and divorced individuals (1.16 vs. married). For never-married and widowed individuals, the corresponding relative mortality risk was slightly lower (1.11 vs. married).

Several possible pathways have been proposed to explain the observed survival differences by legal marital status. The first explanation refers to health selection. It suggests that disabled or less healthy people are not as likely to find a partner and get married as healthy people are. Furthermore, individuals have been speculated to be more likely to get divorced or separated if they become ill or disabled (Wyke & Ford, 1 992). Similar effects have been observed for individuals with mental health problems and those who engage in risky behaviors, such as substance abuse: They are more likely to remain single or become divorced (Fu & Goldman, 2000; Ross, Mirowsky, & Goldsteen, 1990). There is, however, also an indication that unhealthy men tend to (re)marry early (Lillard & Panis, 1 996). Women, on the other hand, have often experienced a different selection, whereby women who remain unmarried at later ages enj oy health equal to their married counterparts (Carr & Springer, 2010).

A second explanation for differences by marital status refers to the consequences of marital dissolution in terms of material resources. Married individuals presumably have more economic resources, which leads to better health. The lack of such resources among people who are no longer married is detrimental to health, and as a result increases mortality (Hahn, 1993; Wyke & Ford, 1992). Women are often found to be especially vulnerable to the negative economic effects of divorce because they generally earn less than their husbands; however, in terms of mortality, divorced men often experience a higher mortality than women (e.g., Koskinen, Joutsenniemi, Martelin, & Martikainen, 2007). Similar findings have been found for widowed men, who suffer from higher mortality than women over a longer period of time (e. …

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