Marriage and Life Expectancy in Rural Japan
J. Sean Curtin (Professor, Japanese Red Cross University)
This commentary originally appeared in the "Japan-U.S. Discussion Forum" (http://lists.nbr.org/japanforum) on November 12, 2002: posted here with the author's permission.
On 7 November 2002, the Mainichi Shimbun reported the conclusions of an Ehime University study on elderly couples which basically found that marriage is good for male life expectancy but detrimental to female life-spans.* While it is almost universally accepted that marriage is good for men, the conclusion that marriage has a negative impact on female life expectancy goes against current thought in most family studies related research fields. With a sample of 3,136 people, the Ehime study found that unmarried men were 1.79 times more likely to die than their married counterparts, while women who were married had a 55% greater chance of dying than those who were alone. These results contradict most long-term research conducted by a wide range of family studies specialists. The Ehime findings may be atypical and probably tell us more about local marriage conditions in a small village deep in rural Japan than they do about the general correlation between marriage and life expectancy in Japan.
American research published in October 1998 shows that marriage can have positive health benefits for elderly couples. The study by the Agency for Health Care Policy and Research showed that marriage promotes healthy behaviour among elderly couples, particularly men.
An October 2002 study conducted at La Trobe University in Australia found that marriage is good for both men and women. This study used data from 10,641 adults recorded in the 1996 national survey of mental health in Australia. It found that married men and women suffered the same levels of stress and that one in four men and women were miserable when single. The research also revealed that married women with children were the least likely to suffer mental health problems.
It is now well established that unmarried men tend to die younger than married ones. There are many theories to explain this. Some researchers believe the phenomenon can be partly explained by the fact that men with unstable characters are less likely to attract a marriage partner and more prone to dangerous life styles.
Psychologists believe that a marital relationship may benefit men's long-term health by giving them emotional security. Long term research conducted in Sweden and published in the British Medical Journal in February 2002 appears to back up this theory.
Research published in August 2002 by the University of Warwick found that, even when smoking and drinking are factored in, married men have a much lower risk of death than single men. Using records from the British Household Panel Survey and the British Retirement Survey they found that over a seven year period, a married man had a 9% lower risk of dying compared with an unmarried one. When smoking and drinking were put into the equation, the benefit was reduced to 6.1%. The effect was less for women, but still reduced the risk of mortality by 2.9%.
Nowadays, if an elderly Japanese woman is unhappy about her marriage, she is more likely to divorce her husband than stay with him. The number of late life divorces has shot up over the past decade.** Life expectancy figures for 2001 show Japanese life expectancy is the highest in the world for both sexes. Women can now expect to live an average of 84.93 years and men 78.07 years. Women live 6.86 years longer than men and most elderly women are, or were, married. The Ehime study is probably most valuable as a snapshot of elderly marriage in a particularly rural region of Japan.
* NBR'S JAPAN FORUM (SOC) Ageing: gendered demographics
Hung Nguyen, 11 November 2002
Husbands biggest threat to old women's lives
7 November 2002, Mainichi Shimbun
** Living Longer, Divorcing Later: The Japanese Silver Divorce Phenomenon
J. Sean Curtin, Debates, GLOCOM Platform, 5 August 2002