The media lemmings are off and running, following the latest “death to single people” scare story with not a glimmer of critical scrutiny. They are implying, for the umpteenth time, that single people are doomed unless they hurry up and get married and stay that way, but the finger-waggers are the ones who are all wet.
At least the reporters know enough not to say explicitly, “Get married, you single people, or you are doomed to an early death!” Instead, there are headings such as “long-term partner lowers risk of death during mid-life” or “Marriage Linked to Better Survival in Middle Age; Study Highlights Importance of Social Ties During Midlife.” Kinda makes you think you better hurry up and grab someone – anyone! – and join the long-lived married couples club, doesn’t it?
The study tracked the mortality of over 4,000 people who attended the University of North Carolina between 1964 and 1966. The authors last determined whether the people were dead or alive in 2009.
Many analyses were reported. I’ll focus on the ones that, the authors claim, showed the most powerful effects. Those were the analyses of the participants’ martial history at midlife, between the ages of 40 and 69. They found that compared to the consistently married, those who were formerly married (mostly separated or divorced, though a small number were widowed) had a “hazard ratio” (risk of death) of 3.10; those who had always been single were better off than the previously married with their risk of 2.59.
Those are the numbers supporting the claims that married people win. Not one report I have read, including the original research report, addresses this question: Do these findings mean that if single people marry, they will live longer than they would if they stayed single?
Of course they don’t.
Notice that the previously married people have a higher risk of death than the consistently married. Guess what? They did get married! Marriage did not “protect” them from an early grave.
Even more importantly, you can’t randomly assign people to marry or stay single, so you can never have a definitive answer to the causal question about marital status and mortality. When you are addressing the general public, many of whom do not have advanced degrees in statistical or research methods, it seems irresponsible not to point that out. Even scholarly readers need to be reminded. But hey, why spoil the latest scare story?
The relentless “death to single people” refrain makes me all the more determined to learn more about people who are single at heart. Let’s see the research on them. If you take people who are single at heart – people who live their most authentic and meaningful lives as single people – and harangue them until they marry, do you think they will live longer than the singles left to live the life they choose? Nope, neither do I. Of course, we can’t really force people to marry (though irresponsible media reports may be the next “best” thing), so we will never really know. But it would be useful to see future reports in which the single-at-heart comprise their own special category.
Here are a few more points of interest from the study in the headlines:
(1) The number of women who died during the course of this UNC study was 32. Seriously. All the big headlines about how marital status predicts death, and only 32 women died during the research. The analyses compared categories such as consistently married, always-single, previously married, remarried, and more – and only 32 women get distributed among those categories. Seriously? I’m not seeing a mention in any of the media reports that the results of the research – as dubious as they are with regard to the real implications of marrying for mortality – may apply only to men.
(2) How about that Science Digest subheading, “study highlights importance of social ties during midlife”? Other than marriage, no social ties were studied! Participants were not asked about friends or family or any other important people in their lives. They were not asked whether the number or type of people in their lives was about what they wanted.
Here’s a useful suggestion: If you are going to make claims about social ties, then include social ties as a measure in your research! Compare people who do and do not have the social ties they want, and see how that compares to all the marital status bunk.
Most of all, media science writers, just stop it. Please do not make unqualified statements about mortality and marital status. Don’t regurgitate press releases, without any critical analyses.
Grow up. Act like professionals. Lots of people want to be single. Others don’t, but studies such as this one do not demonstrate in any methodologically definitive way that they are doomed to an early grave unless they find The One. Don’t leave the implication hanging out there that even if they have not found the partner they want, they should just act like they have and marry the poor thing anyway.
We’ve gone through the whole thing about how single women in particular should just settle. Guess what? So far as I know, the person who has been peddling that regressive crap for years has not taken her own advice.
In my next post, I’ll mention some of my previous writings on marital status and mortality. [Here it is.]
[Notes: (1) Thanks to Erin Albert and Susan Hurt for the heads-up about this article. (2) My interview with Karl Wiebe was originally published with a stock photo next to it; now if you click the link, you can see the real Karl Wiebe.]
Grave stone photo available from Shutterstock