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Elderly Couples Demonstrate Benefits of Long Marriage

  • Carolyn Weaver

A happy marriage - or a permanent committed relationship - have long been associated with longevity and better health

A happy marriage - or a permanent committed relationship - have long been associated with longevity and better health

At 88 and 85, Joe and Georgia Mark are still quick-steppers and affectionate banterers, who share everything except for Joe’s passion for golf. “I was never too interested,” said Georgia, as Joe putted a golf ball in the living room. “But Joe’s a great golfer, no question about that.”

They live in Brooklyn, where they met on a blind date in 1943, and spent the afternoon dancing at a Chinese restaurant. “We danced through the whole thing,” Joe Mark recalled recently at an interview at their apartment. “I was a good dancer, but she was a great dancer. I didn’t even eat the Chinese food. Jeez, we paid for something and didn’t even eat it,” he said, with a laugh. “And this July, it’ll be 67 years we’re married. We’re like the government. We plan ahead."

In their decades together, they have raised two schoolteacher daughters and helped raise two grandsons. Joe ran his own dry cleaning business, and survived two bouts of cancer and a heart attack. “You are a survivor, twice. Thank God, because I won’t let you die, no matter what,” Georgia Mark said to her husband, in a briefly serious moment, as they sat drinking coffee in their kitchen, opposite a wall covered with family snapshots.

Georgia Mark could be right about her importance to her husband’s health. Studies have found that married people have better physical and emotional health, in general, than single individuals, and tend to live longer. One study cited earlier this year in the Student British Medical Journal found that mortality rates among married people in all seven European countries surveyed were 10 to 15 percent lower than among unmarried individuals. Deborah Carr, a professor of sociology at Rutgers University in New Jersey, notes that one reason is economic: married couples tend to have more money than single individuals, especially if both spouses work. But Carr said that people who marry also tend to be healthier to begin with, and then gain from having a partner who cares for them, both practically and emotionally.

“When couples love each other, they watch out for each other,” she said. “The wife will make her husband healthy meals and give him his medication, the husband will take the woman’s arm as she is walking on a slippery ice patch. So, there really are very direct things that husbands and wives do to protect each other’s health, physically. And then perhaps the most important one is the emotional. Having someone you can talk to, having someone you can share your feelings with: that has very real effects for emotional health and physical health.”

Carr observed that it's hard to know to what degree a stable marriage leads to better health - or is a result of it. The stress of health problems or substance abuse can undo a marriage that once seemed strong. Financial insecurity, too, makes marriage more difficult both to begin and sustain.Carr also added that in some countries where women lack equality and where divorce is illegal or stigmatized, a long marriage doesn’t necessarily mean better health. That is because unhappy, high-conflict marriages are even more strongly associated with ill health than is single status, especially for women.

In developed countries, she said, men still tend to show more of a physical-health advantage from marriage than do married women, perhaps because women tend to do more care-taking of their spouses than do men. But both genders suffer from less depression when they are married, she said. And not surprisingly, as married people age, they often argue less, and enjoy each other’s company even more, like Joe and Georgia Mark, who 68 years after they met, say they are still each other’s best friends.

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