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Gasp! Single people are more likely to die

Dominika Osmolska Psy.D.'s picture

It is not a good-news day for singles out there: despite the apparent perks and luxuries of the single life, they apparently do come at a price. A steep price. Sociologists are now saying that single people, especially men, are more likely to die a decade earlier than their married counterparts.

Many studies in the past have pointed 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 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, interestingly, 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. That translates to, in the case of men, dying eight to seventeen years earlier than their married friends. For women, the translation into real numbers is seven to fifteen years earlier than their attached girlfriends, which doesn’t translate into much better odds as compared to the men.

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So how do the researchers account for the startling findings? Several factors may be at play, explains Roelfs. For one, singles may be suffering from poorer health because of lack of income, or motivation that a nagging or persistent spouse can offer in getting regular check-ups and health screenings. There is also less public assistance for single poor people. And some singles may not have the social safety support network that a family provides. In addition, married people probably tend to be less risk-taking and more conscientious about staying on top of their health, because it is for the sake of someone they love and care about.

But singles, take heart. The death risk actually decreases over time, so the longer you hang in there, the less likely it is that you will fall prey to a health catastrophe. 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.

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.

Some researchers are voicing objections to the study, citing bias. Since the study did not include divorced or widowed people, who at one time were married, the results are, they say, questionable. The subtle point here is that if the divorced, for example, were counted among the single, the outcome might prove murkier. Perhaps the divorced are faring much better now that they are happily divorced and they might even be enjoying better health as a result. Surely a bad marriage can wreak havoc on one’s health.

Or does it? I cannot count the number of unhappy, long-lived marriages I have known, or known about. We are a social species. Perhaps we do better in dysfunctional relationships rather than no relationships at all.

The study is being published in the American Journal of Epidemiology.