Friends, family members and many dignitaries will be on hand in Atlanta today for a memorial service honoring former first lady Rosalynn Carter, who died earlier this month at age 96. Most significant of all the attendees, however, will be Rosalynn’s husband, former president Jimmy Carter, who is still with us at age 99.
Rosalynn’s death also allows us to reflect on the question of whether a good, long marriage — the Carters were together for a remarkable 77 years — can contribute to our personal longevity.
By many measures, the answer is a decisive yes.
Study after study has looked at the impact of marriage on individual well-being and has shown that there’s a connection, especially for men. One recent example: A study presented this year at a joint gathering of the American College of Cardiology and the World Congress of Cardiology found that lifelong bachelors were more than twice as likely to die within a period of about five years after a heart-failure diagnosis compared with men who were previously married or women of any marital status.
“There is a relationship between a person’s relationship status and their clinical prognosis,” said lead study author Katarina Leyba, a physician based at the University of Colorado.
Older studies have shown similar results when it comes to marriage and health. One found that being married increases your chances of surviving cancer. Another simply pointed to broadly lower mortality rates — at least among Europeans — for married individuals.
What is it about marriage that paves the way to a longer life? One key factor is that married people tend to look out for each other — sometimes literally. And that can mean spotting medical issues before they become too serious.
Kaye Wellings of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine explained it like this some years ago: “Your familiarity with someone else’s body has benefits in terms of their health status: You could be looking at their back and see a mole that needs attention, or there was a case a while ago where the man was touching his wife’s breast and felt a lump.”
Another factor is that married people, or at least people with partners, tend to be less lonely — and the social interaction fuels good health. Or as clinical psychologist Carla Manly said in a recent interview: “Given that loneliness — which is at epidemic levels — is associated with both poor mental and physical health, one of the key upsides of a healthy partnership is the natural reduction in the stress associated with feeling isolated.”
In a 2019 interview, Jimmy Carter acknowledged the importance of his marriage to his well-being. “It’s hard to live until you’re 95 years old. But having a supportive spouse certainly helps,” he told People magazine. “I think the best explanation for that is to marry the best spouse: someone who will take care of you and engage and do things to challenge you and keep you alive and interested in life.”?
That’s not to say the Carters never fought — in fact, Jimmy Carter recounted one of their worst battles in his memoir “A Full Life: Reflections at Ninety.” He said it occurred when the couple worked on a book together, clashing over their writing styles and also over how they remembered certain events in different ways.
“We had constant arguments and could communicate with each other only through harsh emails,” he wrote.
Still, the couple obviously found ways to bridge their differences. Rosalynn Carter credited the durability of their marriage to the fact that they could also be independent from each other.
“Each [person] should have some space,” she told the Associated Press in 2021. “That’s really important.”