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Does being single really make you live longer?

If you're using longer life spans as a reason for your #WhyImSingle tweet, you might be S.O.L.


S.E. Smith

Internet Culture

Posted on Feb 17, 2015   Updated on May 29, 2021, 12:48 pm CDT

At 115, Emma Morano credits her longevity to eating raw eggs—and being single since 1938. On being single, Europe’s oldest woman told the New York Times simply: “I didn’t want to be dominated by anyone.” Morano’s comments to the Times about the benefits of singledom came at a timely moment: Valentine’s Day, the annual moment of excess for the romance industry and opportunity for universal moaning about being single. To honor “Singles Awareness Day,” #WhyImSingle started trending over the weekend on Twitter, where Morano’s comments raised an interesting point: Perhaps it really is healthier to be single.

It certainly would have been satisfying for people on the Internet to think so—finally, a reason to be proud of never being a bride. But the truth may lie less in relationship status than it does, ultimately, in income, and single people enjoy some social advantages that make it easier for them to accrue wealth.  

While it may be tempting for singletons to embrace Morano’s claim with glee, a grain of salt is heavily advised. Proving such a claim would be extremely difficult, given all the variables involved; few people live to over 100, and the sample size is too small to make any definitive comments on why they live so long. Which isn’t to say that scientists haven’t been exploring the topic, as life extension has been a subject of human fascination for centuries.

Perhaps being single plays a role, as some studies do point to the health benefits of being single, but they may actually point to something more complicated—for women, at least. It may not be singlehood itself that benefits women like Morano but rather the consequent advantages afforded to single women. Married women, particularly those with children, can be at a social disadvantage. Singles tend to live longer, facing less stress—a known contributor to shorter lifespans—and enabled for healthier behaviors like paying for potentially expensive fresh foods and going to the gym. Singledom also increases access to social opportunities—and helps buy all those eggs.

As the perennial argument about whether women can have it all illustrates, there’s considerable pressure on women who want relationships and careers, and the same pressure plays a role in whether women are healthy. Studies showing the financial and social benefits of being single are more like a cruel illustration of how sexism operates in and outside of the workplace.

Several studies suggest that being single confers financial benefits, whether that means being single in general or waiting until after the age of 30 to get married. In both cases, the matter likely isn’t as simple as being uncoupled, though, because there are too many factors involved. Among women, there’s a social advantage in being single during the formative years of a career, because women of childbearing age tend to be discriminated against by potential employers, and those with children and existing relationships are viewed even less favorably. At the Guardian, Kira Cochrane reported dismal statistics on the position of women in the workplace in Britain, including the news that 70 percent of recruitment firms “had been asked by clients to avoid hiring pregnant women or those of childbearing age.”

Employers tend to prefer employees without outside attachments and obligations. An employee who might get pregnant represents a considerable liability, as that employee will need leave should she get pregnant, and if the company offers benefits, the situation gets even more complicated. A potentially pregnant employee means paid family leave, insurance benefits, and more—all of which equates to expenditures on the part of the company. Single women don’t come with these strings attached, and as a bonus, they won’t request time off for childcare and other needs.

Women who are single during the formative years of their careers in their 20s are also likely to be better positioned to make more money than their older counterparts. They can attend colleges and universities more easily, especially women without children, and a diploma can result in higher earnings later in life. Their ability to focus solely on their careers will also increase their financial status, as they can work their way up in the ranks of a company to establish a higher pay rank. Notably, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, the champion of “leaning in,” didn’t marry or have a child until her mid-30s, once her career was well-established.

Making more money doesn’t necessarily mean that single women enjoy better living conditions, though. Couples with a dual income have twice the buying power and half the expenses. They can share a residence, for example, along with the costs of daily living—and products like insurance are actually designed to favor couples over singletons. While the price of insurance might not seem very relevant to one’s lifespan, it becomes an issue when it starts to affect income, as people with higher incomes tend to live longer. At the Washington Post, Michael A. Fletcher pointed out that “the gap in life expectancy has widened as the country’s economic life has grown more bifurcated.”

Studies show that single people are more likely to exercise frequently and be more involved with political causes. These might be considered evidence of benefits for people who don’t have to invest time in a relationship, but the answer might not be that simple. This, too, may be a question of money; for example, being more wealthy increases political involvement.

The higher the income, the more likely someone is to exercise, as Olga Khazan reports at the Atlantic. “Compared to adults making $75,000 or more,” she writes, “those making less than $20,000 were 50 percent less likely to exercise.” The research points to more conscientiousness about health and physical appearance, with the funds to access not just gym time, but also healthy food, as she goes on to explain. A Harvard School of Public Health Study found that eating healthy costs roughly $1.50 more per day, which adds up. If single people are making more money, their comparative wealth comes with obvious health advantages, too.

If longer lifespans are at least partially about money—and evidence certainly points that way, given the advantages that come with wealth—then those who make the most stand to live the longest. Until social factors that affect wealth regardless of relationship status can be controlled—until single and married women alike are hired at the same rate, and at parity with men, for example—it will be impossible to tell whether being single or being socially advantaged is providing the apparent health benefit. 

We need a much larger sample size to get a definitive answer to the question of how advantageous being single really is, and until we have it, those crowing over Morano’s declaration will have to go back to the drawing board.

Photo via philhearing/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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*First Published: Feb 17, 2015, 11:00 am CST