A new book is being released which studies the effects of a whole host of sociological events to determine why we some of us live long lives and some of us die early. The conclusions of The Longevity Project are interesting on several levels, but most relevant to my profession is the impact of divorce on peoples’ lives.
Basically, the authors conclude that after going through a divorce women tend to thrive and live long, active lives, while men, quite simply, do not. They die early. This conclusion is arrived at after the authors, Howard Friedman, Ph.D., and Leslie Martin, Ph.D. reviewed the results of psychologist Lewis Terman’s decades long study of a group of California children whom he followed through their childhoods in the 1920’s into adulthood. Not only did they consider disease and illnesses, but Martin and Friedman also took the eighty plus years of data and examined which behavioral and psychological attributes of these individuals impacted the longevity of their lives.
The impact on divorce was surprising: men who divorced, stayed divorced, or remarried and divorced again saw their mortality rates rise far above their long-married peers. Women, on the other hand, seemed to thrive after they divorced (single women and widows did similarly well). The authors reasoning is that women often left bad marriages and, for possibly the first time in their adult lives, found themselves in charge of their own life and were invigorated by the opportunity to live independently. Considering the generation this study followed, this is surprising since women were typically in a subordinate economic position to their spouses. It is reasonable to conclude, therefore, that the economic hurdles they may have faced after their divorce were preferable to the marriages they were in.
Less surprising, however, was the social impact that divorce had on people. It has been fairly well publicized that a sense of community and social interaction can have profoundly positive effects on the elderly. In the context of the divorce statistics, women’s social ties were not severed by the divorce because their friends were not necessarily predicated on their marriage, whereas, men tended to rely upon their wives for their social network and found that divorce or the death of their spouse tended to cause men to lead more solitary lives. The individuals who led a more solitary and less social existence tended to die earlier than those with a strong social network.
This study examined individuals who had their childhoods in the 1920’s; clearly, this is a generation which experienced a significant amount of social and economic change. Whether these conclusions will apply to the baby-boomer and subsequent generations remains to be seen.