Health Matters: How Life Decisions Affect Well-Being

Marriage is associated with a number of health benefits for adults and children. Among adults, marriage has a robust association with lower mortality risks.

  • Children in intact families are less likely to experience poor health than peers in single mother homes. In both periods from 1978 through 1980 and 1989 through 1991, the highest rates of poor or fair health were among children in low income households headed by a single mother, while poor black children had higher rates of poor/ fair health than white peers. In the later time period, for example, children who lived in households headed by single mothers were 2.6 times as likely to have fair/poor health than peers in two-parent families. Even after adjusting for poverty and race, children who lived in a single-mother home were still 50 percent more likely to have poor or fair health than were peers in two-parent families.1
  • Children who experience a parental separation are more likely to encounter health problems. Children who had experienced a parental separation were significantly more likely to experience health problems than children in intact families. Even when the mother subsequently remarried, the correlation between households with marital disruption and the emergence of health problems among children remained significant.2
  • Children living with both parents are at less risk for psychiatric disease, suicide, injury, and drug addiction. According to this study, children in single-parent homes are at a greater risk for health disadvantages compared to children in twoparent households. Even after adjusting for age, parental situation (parent age, socio-economic group, location, country of birth, psychiatric disease, alcohol and drug addiction), and living conditions (social benefit, number of children, and housing situation), girls and boys living in singleparent homes had greater risks for psychiatric disease, suicide, injury, and drug addiction. For example, girls in single-parent homes were 2.38 times more likely to be addicted to drugs than were girls in two-parent homes, and boys in singleparent homes were 3.01 times more likely to become addicted than boys in two-parent homes.3
  • Youth in intact families are less likely to report ever having had a sexually transmitted disease. Among a sample of sexually active youth, those living with two parents or with a single mother were significantly less likely to report ever having had a sexually transmitted disease when compared to adolescents in father only, nonparental, or foster homes.4
  • Among 20-year-olds, projected life expectancy is higher for those who attend church at least once a week. Life expectancy at age 20 was significantly related to church attendance. Life expectancy was 61.9 years for those attending church once a week and 59.7 for those attending less than once a week.5
  • Married individuals have a lower mortality risk than those never married, divorced, or separated. Individuals who had never been married had nearly twice the mortality risk of those who were married. Those who were divorced or separated ran a mortality risk more than 50 percent higher than those who were married. The black-white mortality gap narrowed when marital status was taken into account.6
  • Married men face a lower mortality risk than their unmarried peers, regardless of household income and living arrangement. On average, married men and women faced a lower risk of mortality compared to their unmarried peers. Controlling for household income and living arrangements, men continued to enjoy a “mortality advantage” from being married, while the effect of marriage on mortality for women became statistically insignificant.7
  • Married women report, on average, better physical and psychological health than unmarried or formerly married women. On average, married women reported the best physical and psychological health. Formerly married women reported the worst health while never-married women fell between these two groups. Compared with unmarried women, married women had less job stress, environment stress, child stress, financial stress, and relationship stress. Health measures included self-rated health, distress level, chronic illness, and a number of stress types, ranging from social life stress to job strain.8
  • Among stressful life events, divorce or separation seems to be the strongest predictor of breast cancer in women. Divorce/separation was found to be the stressful life event most likely to predict breast cancer. Of the stress-related life events researched, divorce was associated with a more than two-fold increase in a woman’s likelihood of developing breast cancer; undergoing the death of a spouse was associated with an increase in risk that was just over 175 percent; and the death of a close friend or relative was associated with an increase of nearly 150 percent. Lower increases in risk were associated with such stressful conditions as losing a job or suffering a personal illness or injury.9
  • Women who change sexual partners after a pregnancy are more likely to miscarry in a subsequent pregnancy. Compared with women who stayed with the same partners, those who changed partners after one pregnancy were more likely to have a first-trimester miscarriage during a subsequent pregnancy.10


  1. Laura E. Montgomery, John K. Kiely and Gregory Pappas, “The Effects of Poverty, Race, and Family Structure on US Children’s Health: Data from NHIS 1978 through 1980 and 1989 through 1991,” American Journal of Public Health 86, No. 10 (October 1996): 1401-1405.
  2. Jane Mauldon, “The Effect of Marital Disruption on Children’s Health,” Demography 27, No. 3 (August 1990): 431-446.
  3. Gunilla Ringbäck Weitoft et al., “Mortality, Severe Morbidity, and Injury in Children Living with Single Parents in Sweden: A Population- Based Study,” The Lancet 361, No. 9354 (January 2003): 289-295.
  4. E. C. Newbern et al., “Family Socioeconomic Status and Self- Reported Sexually Transmitted Diseases Among Black and White American Adolescents,” Sexually Transmitted Diseases 31, No. 9 (2004): 533–541.
  5. Robert A. Hummer et al., “Religious Involvement and U.S. Adult Mortality,” Demography 36, No. 2 (May 1999): 273-285.
  6. Stephanie A. Bond Huie, Robert A. Hummer and Richard G. Rogers, “Individual and Contextual Risks of Death among Race and Ethnic Groups in the United States,” Journal of Health and Social Behavior 43 (2002): 359-381.
  7. Lee A. Lillard and Linda J. Waite, “‘Til Death Do Us Part: Marital Disruption and Mortality,” American Journal of Sociology 100, No. 5 (March 1995): 1131-1156.
  8. Peggy McDonough, Vivienne Walters, and Lisa Strohschein, “Chronic Stress and the Social Patterning of Women’s Health in Canada,” Social Science and Medicine 54 (2002): 767-782.
  9. Kirsi Lillberg, “Stressful Life Events and Risk of Breast Cancer in 10,808 Women: A Cohort Study,” American Journal of Epidemiology 157 (March 2003): 415-423.
  10. N. Maconochie, P. Prior Doyle, and R. Simmons, “Risk Factors for First Trimester Miscarriage--Results from a UK-Population-Based Case-Control Study,” BJOG: An International Journal of Obstetrics & Gynaecology 114, No. 2 (February 2007): 170-186.