Danish Study Links Same-Sex Marriage to Longer Lives: Implications for Californians

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San Francisco psychotherapist Michael Halyard describes a recent Danish study that links same-sex marriage to lower mortality, and the implications for the thousands of Californians who have recently married their same-sex partners.

Thousands of same-sex couples tying the knot may have just prolonged their lifespan.

Californians in same-sex marriages may have longer lives, if a Danish epidemiological study holds true for Californians: since same-sex marriage was legalized in Denmark, same-sex married lesbians and gay men have seen their mortality rates drop.

"The positive health effects of marriage and of allowing same-sex couples to marry have been well documented. The Danish study is the first that looks at longevity in same-sex marriages, as Denmark is uniquely well poised to do so since they were the first country to have marriage equality in 1989," says San Francisco psychotherapist Michael Halyard.

Halyard is a San Francisco gay therapist and can be found on the websites http://www.sftherapy.com/ and http://www.sanfrancisco-psychotherapy.com.

Just one month ago, same-sex marriages returned to California, thanks to last month’s U.S. Supreme Court rulings striking down both Proposition 8 and the so-called "Defense of Marriage Act" (DOMA).

"Thousands of same-sex couples tying the knot this past month may have just prolonged their lifespan," argues Halyard.

The Danish study published earlier this year in the International Journal of Epidemiology adds to the body of research linking better health with those in same-sex marriages, and the positive health effect and longevity of marriage in general.

The study found that men in same-sex marriages live longer than unmarried and divorced men, with only opposite-sex married men living longer.

"The study’s authors concluded that for Danish men, it was more hazardous to be never married or divorced than to be married to another man," adds Halyard.

The study followed 6.5 million Danes from 1982 to 2011, looking at socio-demographic variables like marital status, sex of partner, living arrangements, and cause of death. The data came from the country’s Civil Registration System, a system set up to provide citizens with identification numbers similar to Social Security numbers in the United States. The system also includes demographic information like marital status and death dates. The researchers tracked the mortality rates for the 29-year period. Controlling for other variables like education and income, the study found that a person’s marital status made a difference.

People in opposite-sex marriages had the lowest mortality rates than all the other groups, including people who were never married, widowed, or divorced. Female divorcees and widows were 1.6 and 1.4 times, respectively, likelier to die during the study than those married to a man. The mortality rates for women who never married increased from 1.5 to 1.7 times likelier to die than married woman during the study period.

Male widowers were found to be 1.4 times likelier to die than opposite-sex married men as of 2011, increasing from 1.2 times in 1982. Divorced men saw their mortality probability increase from 1.3 to 1.7 times likelier to die than married men, while unmarried saw their chance of mortality go up from 1.2 to 1.7 between 1982 and 2011. The study indicates a trend that marriage has had an increasing effect on mortality rates over time.

Beginning in 1989 when Denmark legalized same-sex marriage, mortality rates among lesbians and gay men declined. As of 2011, same-sex married men were just 1.4 times likelier to die during the study than opposite-sex married men, which is a better survival rate than unmarried or divorced men.

"A portion of the drop in mortality can be explained by the development of antiretroviral drugs to treat HIV. The disease impacts gay men disproportionately and the drugs have been available since 1995. Due to the antiretroviral drugs, gay men went from being the group with the highest mortality, to the group with the second-lowest mortality rates--behind only men in opposite-sex marriages," says Halyard.

Same-sex married women saw their mortality rates decline during the study period, however the rates declined less dramatically. Since 2000, women in same-sex marriages had a mortality rate nearly 90 percent higher than opposite-sex married women. The researchers hypothesize that an increased risk of suicide in Danish lesbians accounts for the lion’s share of the mortality lag. Tragically, same-sex married lesbians were over six times likelier to commit suicide than opposite-sex married heterosexual women. In addition, they were 60 percent more likely to die from cancer, for reasons unknown.

"The good news is that the study revealed that mortality rates are not necessarily higher in gay men, in spite of research that shows disproportionate physical and mental health challenges in the group, primarily linked to social stigma. Marriage may serve as a buffer against the societal struggles of being gay, or perhaps healthier gay men may be more prone to become married," says Halyard.

"The bad news is that lesbians and gay men still struggle more than their heterosexual counterparts: both men and women in same-sex marriages had higher rates of suicide than opposite-sex married couples. It is critical to identify factors that make gay men and lesbians more vulnerable to stress to such a degree that suicide appears to be an option," adds Halyard.

While the research was conducted in Denmark, Halyard says there is no reason to assume the results would be that different in other western countries.

"The bottom line is that last month’s Supreme Court rulings striking down both Proposition 8 and the so-called "Defense of Marriage Act" (DOMA) marks a new chapter for lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, and transgender (LGBT) individuals in the California. The rulings translate into better mental and physical health, longer lives and stronger relationships and families for LGBTs," adds Halyard.

Michael Halyard, MS, MFT is a San Francisco Marriage and Family Therapist and specializes in LGBT issues, depression, anxiety, addictions and couples counseling in his private practice. He can be found on the websites http://www.sftherapy.com/ and http://www.sanfrancisco-psychotherapy.com.

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