The times they are a changin': marital status and health differentials from the 1970s to the 2000s
Proponents of marriage, both politicians and scholars, emphasize that marriage benefits health and empirical evidence supports the view that the married are healthier than the unmarried. While a significant body of work establishes the link between marital status and health, previous studies do not consider historical trends in this association. The main objective of the present study is to describe whether and how the association between marital status and health has changed over the past three decades in the United States. Given longstanding observations about gender and race differences in family and health processes, the second objective is to consider gender and race variation in marital status/health trends. Third, I consider whether those health trends by marital status can be attributed to change in family income--which is often viewed as an explanatory mechanism between marriage and health. Results based on three decades’ national health survey data show that over the span of the past three decades, the self-rated health of the never-married became more similar to that of the married; in contrast, over this same time span, the self-rated health of the widowed, divorced, and separated worsened over time, relative to the married. Analyses of two additional health measures (i.e. activity limitation and mortality) show that differences in both activity limitation status and general mortality between the married and each of the unmarried groups--including the widowed, divorced, separated and never married--have widened over recent decades. For each measure of health status, I find important gender and race variation in those health trends by marital status and challenge some long-held assumptions about gender, marital status, and health. Moreover, I find little evidence that family income explains those health trends by marital status. Potential explanations and implications of those trends in health and marital status are discussed.