A new study suggests gay men in same-sex marriages live longer than their single counterparts, but that marriage is no longer helping lesbians live longer.
Studying the Overall Picture of Mortality and Relationship Status
The study, published last week in the International Journal of Epidemiology, took Denmark’s civil registry and used it to follow 6.5 million adults from 1982 to 2011. The study reviewed that data to examine mortality squared against relationship status.
Researchers found marriage itself wasn’t a magic pill that ensured a long life among the population sample. Married heterosexual couples frequently living apart, for instance, saw higher death rates earlier than their counterparts. Also, if someone married more than twice, the likelihood of mortality increased 27% for women with each successive marriage, and 16% for men. That said, in general, marriage was shown to have an associated list of benefits. Of itself, that’s not so groundbreaking.
However, because same-sex unions have been legal in Denmark since 1989, the study offers a unique chance to study the long term impact of partnership and marriage equality. Other studies have suggested concrete benefits to allowing same-sex couples to marry, and this study of Denmark’s population is no different.
Gay Men Appear to Benefit from Marriage But Lesbians Are Facing Elevated Death Rates
Researchers found that mortality rates for married gay men declined sharply during the study period and is now only just above that of heterosexual unmarried or divorced men — though it still remains lower than straight married men. A number of factors could be at play here. The normalization of gay relationships and therein the lowered risk of stigma will be a factor, as will overall movement away from high risk behaviors and a greater awareness and ability to deal with things like HIV, for instance.
Interestingly, however, researchers found that during the study period, the same benefit could not be evidenced for married lesbian couples who, researchers found, faced an increasing mortality rate during the time period. This comes after what had been a steady decline in mortality rates for women.
Why Are Lesbians Dying Younger?
The researchers speculate that a reason for this may be two-fold: the population is at a higher risk of suicide and is possibly under-served by health campaigns, and also that the population is at high-risk of breast cancer. In past studies, higher cancer risk has been attributed to fear of perceived bias from medical staff acting as a barrier to seeking treatment.
It should be noted the study showed men in same-sex marriages appear to also face an elevated risk of suicide compared to heterosexual married men, so clearly marriage is again not a magic cure for society’s woes.
Why Are Studies Like This Important?
Of course, homosexual couples made up only a fraction (1%) of the overall population sample and so drawing any definite conclusions would be unwise. However, this does raise several important questions for further research including why higher suicide rates persists among same-sex couples, and exactly why heterosexual married couples continue to lead the way in low mortality rates.
It is for this reason that such studies are important. As Dr. Morten Frisch, lead author of the study, notes:
“Our study expands on century-old knowledge that married people generally have lower mortality than unmarried and divorced persons. From a public health viewpoint it is important to try and identify those underlying factors and mechanisms.”
“Among men in Denmark, it is more dangerous to be unmarried or divorced than to be married to another man,” Frisch told Live Science in a separate interview.
While this of itself may not sound an important point, it still has value in our political climate today. Take the debate in Minnesota which, against expectations, is a state that is rapidly advancing a marriage equality bill after last year defeating a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage at the ballot.
This week’s public testimony included graphic details from one opponent of marriage equality about how gay marriage will supposedly lead to higher incidences of HIV/AIDS, when in fact the exact opposite has been observed.
Sadly, that’s still not quite the fringe idea it should be and so any evidence of the concrete benefits of marriage — and also the harms of denying same-sex couples marriage — is still very relevant.
Image credit: Thinkstock.
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