"Married adults report better health, but singles are catching up," proclaimed one of the many headlines touting the latest marital status study to make it into the media spotlight.
I'll give you my bottom line about this study first. Then I'll explain in greater detail.
Here's what the study really did show:
1. For people who had always been single, their health improved continuously from 1972 until the end of the study, 2003. This improvement was evident in all groups -- men and women, Blacks and whites. (This was accurately reported in the media.)
2. The other part of the headline, that married people are still the healthiest, was misleading in at least four ways:
A. The study does NOT show that differences between the currently-married and the always-single occurred BECAUSE the currently-married people got married. Instead, the data were analyzed in a way that gave the currently-married people an advantage it did not give the single people. (That is standard practice in cottage industry of marriage studies.)
B. Even allowing for the approach that makes marriage look better than it really is, the differences in health between the currently-married and the always-single are tiny. By the last year of the study (2003), the probability of reporting good health was about .928 for the currently married and about .926 for the always-single. If it is easier to think in terms of percentages, that means that about 92.8% of currently-married people said their health was good or excellent, compared to about 92.6% of always-single people. So the headlines saying that married people are still the healthiest are touting a difference of about two-tenths of one percent. And remember, that advantage did NOT come from getting married (as I explain below). Is that 0.2% what you imagined when you read headlines claiming that married people are the healthiest?
C. For the African-Americans, by 2003, there was no difference at all between the health of the currently-married and the always-single.
D. Women who had always been single were healthier than men who were currently married. In 2003, the likelihood that always-single women would report good or excellent health was about 92.8. For currently-married men, it was about 91.8. (This wasn't noted in any of the media reports I found.)
For THE MORE DETAILED DISCUSSION, continue reading here, at my "Living Single" blog for Psychology Today.