Sunday, August 29, 2004

Study: marital status linked to health risks

A story published today in the British newspaper, The Independent, reports that being single is associated with many more health risks than being married.  Based on a recent scientific study, the story suggests that on top of the cigarettes, wine and anxiety about weight, the very state of being single takes years off your life.

The research, which monitored the lifestyles of 10,000 adults across Britain over 10 years, has found that for both men and women being single is as perilous to longevity as smoking.

The findings buck the trend of previous research which has tended to show that only single men were at risk. The negative effects of being alone are thought to kick in when a person hits 30.

Just why being single is so unhealthy is not clear, the researchers say. But anyone who has read Bridget Jones's Diary - the second instalment of which is about to hit American cinema screens and will reach the UK in November - will have a clue.

Much like Bridget Jones, who defined the anxieties of a female generation, it is thought single people tend to follow less healthy lifestyles. They drink more because they socialise more with large groups of friends; they skip meals, such as breakfast, and work harder because there is no partner to make time for. And they do not have an emotional confidant to share problems with.

Married couples, on the other hand, tend to have better diets and more comfortable homes. Children within a marriage are also thought to have a stabilising effect, whereas single people are likely to take more risks.

Professor Andrew Oswald, who led the research, said: "Marriage keeps you alive and the effect is remarkably large. The excess mortality for the unmarried is similar to that of a smoker."

In the study, the researchers, whose work is to be published in The Journal of Health Economics, used a database of 10,000 adults in their 40s, who have been monitored for the last decade and interviewed each year.

Six hundred people died during the course of the study, and researchers looked at the different mortality rates of men and women who were married, single, divorced and widowed to see if there were any differences in the risk of death over an eight-year period.

The researchers found that men who had never married or who were separated or divorced at the start of the research were 10 per cent more likely to die during the following eight years.

Women who were single, separated or divorced at the start of the study had a 4.8 per cent greater risk of dying. That compares to the 5 per cent extra risk of dying faced by smokers.

The agony aunt Claire Rayner, who has been with her husband for 47 years, said: "If you are married you have a partner who shores up your self-esteem. They think you are made of the stuff of magic and worry about you if you are late home.

"If your self-esteem is high you take more of an interest in yourself, so you take more care of yourself. You have a sense of responsibility to yourself and your partner. If you have children, even if they are grown, you still feel a responsibility for them - especially if you are a woman."

Virginia Ironside, the Independent's agony aunt, observed: "I think it's unhappiness that makes people die early. Some people when they are single are not happy and if you are unhappy perhaps you don't fear dying as much as if you are full of beans.

"But if you are a single person with lots of good friends and you feel comfortable, then that's a very happy state to be in."

Professor Charlie Lewis, an expert on divorce and family relationships at Lancaster University, said: "Divorce is probably as stressful as bereavement but in many cases there is also a continuing conflict with partners.

"Men who experience divorce also experience the stress and pain of not being with their children. I think it is partly, too, about women looking after men, and men not being socialised to care for themselves."

The Single Woman: 'If I was with someone I'd settle my life a lot'

Gaynor Critchley, 32, a model from Balham in London. She has been single for six years, mainly due to the pressure of work which involves a lot of travel "and the lifestyle involved with this job doesn't leave much time for anything, never mind sharing it with anybody else".

She says: "If I'm working I get up about 7am, if not I'll spend the morning in bed. I've never been a breakfast person. I start work at 8.30. I don't get time for lunch at work. I finish work any time between six and 10 or 12 in the evening. If I eat out it's Thai, Lebanese, sushi or Chinese. I skip meals because there's not much point in cooking for one person. I do drink, but I only really get tipsy. When I'm travelling I don't get to go to the gym.

"If I was with someone I would settle my lifestyle a lot; I'd stay at home more. But until I meet him I'm not prepared to do that. I'd rather be happy on my own than unhappy in a bad relationship."

Smoking: 10 cigarettes a day Drinking: Several glasses of wine with friends

Daily routine - 7am: Get up (if due to work) 8.30am: Skip breakfast. Arrive at work 10 or 11am: Snack, probably on sushi 12pm: Skip lunch or get up, if not a working day

8pm: Have dinner 10pm-midnight: Finish work or go out with friends

12.30pm: Snack on toast 1am: Go to bed

The Single Man: 'Now that there is only me, I do have less down time'

Karl Scramell, 32, self-employed recruitment consultant from Bolton. Single for one year after six-year relationship. A member of Partner to Partner introduction agency in Warrington. Karl works 12 hours a day at his business, which he has just set up. While he does skip breakfast, he says he always has done, but he makes a point of cooking an evening meal. He says if he wasn't single he probably would not have set up his business because he would not have had the time.

He says: "When you are in a long-term relationship you make time for the other person. Now there is only me to consider and I have the new business, I tend to put my own time on the back burner, so I have less down time. In the past we would settle down with a bottle of wine and watch a couple of DVDs, whereas now I fill that time with other things.

"I can't sit around and do nothing, so I am probably working more. Having said that, I wouldn't have been able to start my business if I'd been in a relationship. But I'm confident that when a relationship starts again I could revert."

Smoking: Occasional cigar

Drinking: Glass of wine a day, more at weekends

Daily routine - 7am: Get up, skip breakfast more often than not 8am: Start work

Noon: Grab some lunch, either "on the run" or a pub lunch 8pm: Finish work 8.30-9pm: Eat meal with glass of wine 9.30pm (weekday): Write articles for trade union magazines or fiction, or study psychology or Russian history Midnight: Go to bed 9.30pm-midnight (weekend): Go out with friends. "I like to go out in a group and converse."