I’m a social scientist, so when I want to know the answers to questions such as, who lives the longest and why, I like to look to big, methodologically sophisticated studies. But there seems to be a certain appeal to those articles that pop up with some regularity, in which the oldest person in the world is asked to explain the keys to his or her long life.
Emma Morano, at 117 years-old, is currently the person who has lived more years on this earth than anyone. She seems to have struck a chord, at least with people who share my interests, judging from the number of people who have sent me links to stories about her or shared posts on Facebook.
I know why. Emma Morano “has credited her old age to being single” (as well as getting to bed early). If you are single (as I am), you probably feel under constant assault by headlines proclaiming that as a single person, you have an inferior life – and a shorter one, too – and that if only you would get married, everything would magically improve. You would become happier, healthier, and more connected, and you would live longer than if you stayed single. The problem is, those claims are not true. Challenging those claims, and debunking the corresponding myths, has been one of the passions of my life.
I have critiqued one study after another that claims to show that single people are doomed to a shorter life. You can read those critiques here. So does Emma Morano have a point about the link between staying single and staying alive?
There are plenty of relevant studies, so here I will just mention one of my favorites, a study that followed people over the entire course of their lives. It is the Terman Life-Cycle Study, which began in 1921 with 1,528 eleven-year-olds and is probably the longest-running study on record. The researchers found that the people who lived the longest were those who stayed single, along with those who married and stayed married (Tucker, Friedman, Wingard, & Schwartz, 1996). People who divorced, whether or not they remarried, had shorter lives. Consistency (staying single or staying married) was what mattered, not marriage.
Technically, Emma Morano counts as divorced. But since her divorce happened in 1938, and she has lived single for the subsequent 78 years of her adult life (78 years!), I would like to count her as an honorary lifelong single person. Happy birthday, Emma!