By Dimiter Philipov, IIASA World Population Program
Since the middle of the 19th century researchers have known that married men and women live longer than the unmarried: it is an inference as stable as a natural law. My colleague at IIASA, Sergey Scherbov and I supported its validity with a study in the 21st century, extending the pattern to encompass cohabiting. We also showed that people who have a partner are healthier than those without.
Across 16 European countries, partnered women aged 50 will outlive single women by 1.4 years on average before reaching age 80. For the men this difference is considerably larger: 4 years. Partnered people also have more years with healthy life (i.e., without disabilities) when compared to the singles: for women this gain is 5 years and for the men it is nearly 8 years. In general, partnership is more beneficial for the men.
What makes living with a partner so important for a longer life and better health? An important advantage of living with a partner is that the partner can provide emotional, economic, social, and physical support in everyday life and in case of illness. This advantage is known as the protective effect of marriage. Over a period of 160 years causes of death have changed and the conditions of life and health have changed, yet the protective effect of marriage remains. In contemporary living arrangements cohabitation frequently replaces marriage but it has the same protective effect.
We expected single people to lack the protective effect of marriage, in other words, singles are expected to have poorer health. In addition, each one of the single sub-groups (i.e., never married, widowed, and divorced/separated) is subject to different reasons for poorer health than partnered people. For example, the never-married might have a disability that prevents them from finding a partner; widowed people are likely to lead the lifestyle of their late partner (diet, exercise, smoking, economic conditions, etc.) and are therefore more likely to suffer from the same disease that ended their partner’s life; divorces can be due to increased disability in either one of the partners.
We carried out international comparisons among the 16 European countries and found substantial diversity between countries in Western and in Eastern Europe. Populations in Eastern Europe have shorter lives, shorter healthy lives, and a longer time spent with disabilities compared to those in Western Europe. These differences are greater for single people than for partnered people; for example single men in Slovakia live only 7.4 years free of disabilities in the interval from 50 to 80 years, while in Sweden they enjoy nearly 20 years of healthy life.
The Nordic countries are leading with respect to length of healthy life and small differences between partnered and single people. The protective effect of marriage or cohabitation seems to be small in these countries. We believe this is due to the strong social policies that prevail in these countries.
What can we expect for the future? Statistical data indicate that the proportion of single people above age 50 and especially of single men increases with time. Hence the proportion of those who experience disabilities and ill-health will rise unless policies are put in place to help relieve these adverse effects.
Reference: Philipov D & Scherbov S (2016). Differences by union status in health and mortality at older ages: Results for 16 European countries. Demographic Research, 35: 535-556.
This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.