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Men live longer when they marry younger spouses. Why don't women?

Whether or not you like the idea of marriage, demographers would probably encourage you to get hitched. Since the middle of the 19th century, they have understood that people who marry enjoy longer and happier lives than those who remain single. In the early 70s, longevity researches added a footnote: a younger wife adds a few years to a man’s life.

But these statements seem tired today. In many countries, women are more likely than ever to be older than their husband, romantic cohabitation is commonplace and same-sex unions are winning more legal recognition. So does marriage still mean a longer lifespan?

The answer, in short, depends on age gaps, money and brains.

Let’s focus on age gaps. A few years ago, that 70s footnote was reexamined by German demographer Sven Drefahl, who dug deep into Denmark’s population data. In doing so, he put together a highly cited and influential paper on marital age gaps and longevity.

Drefahl chose Denmark because, since 1968, the country has done as much as technology has permitted to keep a computerized register of everyone in the country. (This began, back in the day, with records on magnetic tape.)

As was reported when his study first came out in 2010, Drefahl found that women with younger husbands – so-called “cougars” – die young, as do men with older wives and women with older husbands. (I use “cougar” for brevity: as I will explain later, it’s a horrible term.) The only lifespan winners in the Danish data were the men with younger wives.

The finding that cougars die young is odd – and Drefahl didn’t claim in his paper to be able to explain it. It’s odd because, in theory, the benefits of being married to someone younger than you should apply to both sexes. In the autumn or winter of your years, having a younger spouse is likely to mean having a higher standard of health and fitness to keep up with, and when it comes to it, a younger spouse is probably a more energetic caregiver than someone your own age.

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