Have you heard the one about the wild and unhealthy single men and the better-behaved and healthy-living husbands? It is not a joke (though it should be) - it has been described as scientific fact. The book, The Case for Marriage, is full of misstatements and cheater methods that make married people look better than they really are and singles look worse. (These are described in detail in Singled Out.) But, sadly, The Case is often cited, so it is a good source of conventional (though dopey) wisdom about the implications of getting married.
The Conventional Wisdom about Getting Married and Getting Healthy
Here are a few choice quotes about single and married men from The Case:
• "For men, a lot of the health advantages of marriage can be summed up in a single phrase: Fewer stupid bachelor tricks."
• "Wives not only discourage drinking, smoking, and speeding, but they cook low-fat or low-cholesterol meals, add more fruits and vegetables to the family diet, and encourage regular sleeping habits."
• "When men lose their wives, either to death or divorce, they once again resume their bachelor habits."
Those poor single men. They must be keeling over from heart attacks and strokes, or waddling into old age with bloated bellies filled with a lifetime of beer and bratwurst. Since it's American Heart Month, I suppose we should pay attention.
Getting Married and Getting Heart Disease: A National Study
I like to fight singlism with science, so I was delighted to discover a report of an 8-year study of heart disease, based on a nationally representative sample of more than 9,000 people in late mid-life. When the study first started in 1992, the participants ranged in age from 51 to 60.
The participants were contacted five times from 1992 and 2000. Their marital status, cardiovascular health status, and health behaviors were assessed. Other information (for example, socioeconomic status) was also recorded.
There are five different marital statuses:
• Continuously married (i.e., first and only marriage)
• Always single
Let's look first at the prevalence of heart disease at the start of the study. (Heart disease = doctor diagnosis of heart attack, coronary heart disease, angina, congestive heart failure, or other heart problems, or stroke.) In the table below is the percentage of people (averaged across all ages) who had heart disease at the start of the study. Lower numbers indicate less prevalence of heart disease, so the group ranked #1 is the healthiest. The rank-ordering of heart disease for the 5 marital statuses was the same for the men as for the women. See if you can guess which marital status goes with each rank.
1. 8.4 13.0
2. 8.7 13.5
3. 10.7 16.4
4. 10.8 16.5
5. 11.6 17.7
Okay, here are the answers:
1. Always single
2. Continuously married
So there you have it. The lowest rate of heart disease is found among the women and men, ages 51-60, who had been single all their lives. The rates for the continuously married are higher, though not statistically so.
The study went on for years, and the authors calculated the probability of experiencing heart disease for each age, from 51 through 65. (See Table 5 in the article.) Of course, the probabilities increase with age for men and women of all marital statuses. Let's see where they end up at age 65. Here are the results for the MEN.
1. 29, always-single men
2. 33, widowed men
3. 42, remarried men
4. 46, continuously married men
5. 50, divorced men
Look at what has happened to the continuously married men. At 46%, the likelihood of having heart disease is greater for them than for any other group of men except the divorced. The always-single men are doing way better, at just 29%.
(For women at age 65, the probabilities were 32 for continuously married, 38 for always-single, 43 for widowed, 45 for remarried, and 47 for divorced. So even though men typically have higher rates of heart disease than women, the always-single men have the lowest rates of all 10 of the groups.)
The authors also looked at how the risk of heart disease changed for each successive year of marriage. Here, in their words, is what they found: "Each year in marriage increased rather than decreased the risk of cardiovascular disease by 2% for both men and women." The risk increased each year both in first marriages and in remarriages.
Because the authors collected data on health measures such as smoking and obesity, and on conditions described as morbid (really, that's the technical term), they could venture a data-based explanation as to why each year of marriage added to the risk of heart disease: "Longer marriages were associated with less healthy behaviors and an accumulation of morbid conditions, such as hypertension, diabetes, and high cholesterol."
So much for The Case for Marriage with its wives preparing low-cholesterol meals for their husbands, with fresh fruit for dessert. (And yes, that book, published in the year 2000, envisions wives making all the meals for their husbands.) And about those "stupid bachelor tricks" - perhaps the authors would like to revisit that claim?
Where Were the Feature Stories about These Findings?
This national study of heart disease was published in a very reputable journal (Journal of Marriage and Family) in 2006. Do you remember seeing any headlines about it in the media? I don't either.
Can you imagine how many feature stories you would have seen if the results were reversed, and the continuously married men (rather than the always-single men) had lower rates of heart disease than all of the other men and even all of the other women?
Here's my guess about why the great results for single men did not get much attention: Matrimania sells, and the bashing of single men is in.
Here's another. If you look at the published summary of the article (which you can read here), you will see that the results for the always-single men (or women) are not even mentioned. Instead, the focus is on the bad things that happen to your heart if you "lose" a marriage.
What about the Other Kind of Heart?
By medical measures, always-single men have good hearts. But what about the other sense of a "good heart," the meaning that is more about the kind of person you are than about the condition of your body parts?
I find this an especially interesting question in light of the recent books about single men that seem so demeaning (sometimes unwittingly so). In a conversation about one of those books (Guyland), Jeff Arnett told Living Single readers what the research really does show about single men during emerging adulthood:
"What's really striking is how much less sexist, racist, and homophobic young guys are now than in the past. Most want an equal partner in a romantic and sexual relationship, not just someone who will serve them. Most have friends who are of different ethnic groups, and most have gay or lesbian friends and don't make a big deal out of it. What's more, rates of every type of 'guy problem' have declined sharply in the past 30 years among emerging adults-including alcohol use, crime, and unprotected sex. So the assertion that the typical young guy today is a drunken porno-mad potential rapist is nonsense. It's untrue and unfair."
Personally, since Singled Out was published, I've met many single men at my talks and book signings, and - minus the visuals - I've met many more in the e-mails I've received about issues of singlism and living single. I realize my experiences may be unrepresentative and my opinion may be biased, but I'll state it anyway. I believe that most single men have very good hearts.