January 9, 2005

Being a married woman can make you sick

A story published today in The Age, an Australian newspaper, reports that divorced, widowed and unmarried women appear to be healthier in later years than their married counterparts.

The surprise finding may help allay fears that the burgeoning group of older single women - products of the divorce surge of the 1970s and 1980s - will put an extra burden on health budgets.

The University of Queensland and Queensland University of Technology joint research project was based on a sample of 2300 Australians aged over 60.

It will be published in the next issue of the journal Just Policy.

The research shows that divorced, widowed and unmarried elderly women reported significantly better health than married women, challenging long-held beliefs that married people overall had better physical and mental health than the non-married.

But men's health appears to be unaffected by their marital status.

"Maybe married women are worn out from looking after their husbands," Queensland University researcher Belinda Hewitt said.

Women who were separated but not divorced reported poorer health than the other groups of women, giving rise to some concerns that the needs of some elderly women are being overlooked.

The research shows Australia's ageing population will include the biggest group of divorced and separated elderly in history.

Between 1991 and 2001 the numbers of separated or divorced Australians aged over 60 rose from 165,000 to more than 300,000, and the proportion rose from 6.3 to 9.6 per cent. In 2003, the number of divorced women aged 60 years exceeded the number of widows for the first time. As well, the number of divorced men aged 60 nearly doubled over the same period.

Ms Hewitt said it was widely accepted that married people had better social contacts and more social activities.

But the research showed the elderly divorced, widowed and unmarried women generally led involved and active lives, which was good for their health.

She said further study was needed to determine whether the findings were influenced by the size or nature of the sample. "Single aged people are much more likely than the married to end up in aged-care facilities," she said. "It is possible that the healthy non-married elderly are over-represented in our sample."