It's great being single, isn't it? You get to sleep on either side of the bed; you never have to wait for the bathroom; you've got all that "me time." Except, well, you may be one of the unlucky singles who keel over about one decade earlier than your married friends, according to a new study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology.
Although many studies point to the fact that singles just don’t fare as well in terms of health and longevity compared to the married, this new research shows “just how poorly the singles do,” explains lead author David Roelfs, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Louisville, Ky.
The researchers analyzed the data from some 90 previous studies, which included about 500 million people, and compared the risk of mortality for singles from those studies — defined as those who never married — to that of a married group, excluding those who are divorced or widowed.
The researchers found the risk of death was 32 percent higher across a lifetime for single men compared to married men. Single women face a 23 percent higher mortality risk, compared to married women.
In real numbers, “under the worse-case scenario,” single men could die about eight to 17 years earlier than their married male friends, says Roelfs, citing that nearly all of the data was gleaned from studies conducted in the last 60 years. Women don't fare much better. They could die seven to 15 years earlier than their married female counterparts.
The researchers speculate their longevity findings could be tied to poorer health benefits, meager public assistance and less income for singles. And some singles may not have the same social support that married couples have “by default,” explains Roelfs.
“If you’re a couple, a spouse may be after you to eat better and go the doctor,” he says. “Sometimes it’s just easier to be healthier and less of a risk taker when you’re married.” Though single people can get some of that same support from parents, siblings and friends, he says.
There is some good news for the spouseless: Singles who survive their younger years actually fare well over a lifespan. The relative risk of death for singles aged 30 to 39-years-old was 128 percent greater than among married people of the same age, but decreased to about 16 percent for single 70-year-olds when compared to 70-year olds in wedded bliss, according to the study.
And other research points to the fact that although the married still have better health than singles, the mortality gap between singles and the married is closing, according to a recent study published in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior.
So before all single ladies (and dudes) run screaming to the nearest justice of the peace to hook up, it's worth noting that, while the new research looked at mortality risk from a very large group, the study results are about “probabilities, not certainties,” says Roelfs. “The last thing we want is for some single person to say ‘Oh my God, I’m going to die young.’”
Still, not everyone accepts the premise that wedlock imparts any special healing effects.
“I think there is a marriage bias,” says social psychologist Bella DePaulo, author of "Singled Out: How Singles are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After." Too many studies, she believes, look at singles versus married people, without counting the divorced or widowed among the married cohort, skewing the numbers.
“You can’t say that single people would live longer if they got married, based on this research, because the researcher is only counting the people who got married and are still currently married.
Divorced and widowed people got married at one time, too,” says DePaulo, a visiting professor in social psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
Of course, the perfect study to answer the thorny question of whether marriage really does impart health benefits would be, well, unethical: randomly assigning people to stay single or to get married, and then following them throughout their lives.
Then there’s the question of the quality of marriage — good, bad, indifferent — and its effect on longevity.
“I don’t think you need a study to tell people that a lousy marriage is going to be bad for someone’s health,” Roelfs says.
Joan Raymond is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in Newsweek, the New York Times, MORE and Woman's Day.