Rolling back the years

A study has re­vealed that men who have re­la­tion­ships with sig­nif­i­cantly younger part­ners live longer, but that women who do so die younger – so is age not “just a num­ber”?

Destiny Man - - GROOMING SPY -

Play­boy founder Hugh Hefner may have been onto some­thing. Pop cul­ture abounds with ref­er­ences to the phe­nom­e­non of men dat­ing much younger women, from Hol­ly­wood block­busters that cast far older male ac­tors to star along­side young ac­tresses, to the sex­ual ep­i­thets of “pappy” or “daddy” and the Play­boy man­sion. So when nu­mer­ous stud­ies re­vealed that men with sig­nif­i­cantly younger spouses en­joyed longer life­spans, many nod­ded sagely.

This age-gap ef­fect is well en­trenched in science.

For more than 150 years, de­mog­ra­phers have also un­der­stood that peo­ple who marry en­joy longer and hap­pier lives than those who re­main sin­gle. How­ever, as Sven Dre­fahl at the Max Planck In­sti­tute for De­mo­graphic Re­search in Ro­s­tock, Ger­many, found in his land­mark study of two mil­lion Dan­ish cou­ples, a woman who’s seven to nine years older than her hus­band has a 20% greater mor­tal­ity risk than if she were with a man the same age.

This dis­pelled the long-held be­lief that health­ier in­di­vid­u­als were in a bet­ter po­si­tion to choose younger spouses and so al­ready en­joyed longer life ex­pectancy, and that younger spouses pro­vided a psy­cho­log­i­cal boost and bet­ter old-age care.

Dre­fahl pointed to the pos­si­bil­ity of ad­di­tional stress ex­pe­ri­enced by women who are gen­er­ally less re­liant on their part­ners’ sup­port, but couldn’t be cer­tain of the cause. Au­thor Su­san Win­ter be­lieves that as so­ci­ety be­comes more ac­cept­ing of a woman’s choice of part­ner, later stud­ies may prove that it’s ac­tu­ally health­ier for women to have a younger hus­band.

At a time when women in many coun­tries are more likely than ever to be older than their hus­bands, co­hab­i­ta­tion and same-sex unions are com­mon­place and the no­tion of gen­der it­self is more fluid, I find some of these state­ments jaded.

There are many who would use the Dre­fahl study – and oth­ers, like the one con­ducted by dat­ing site OKCupid claim­ing that men of any age pre­fer women in their early 20s – to re­in­force stereo­types that do noth­ing to fur­ther gen­der equal­ity. As some­one who gen­er­ally finds him­self in re­la­tion­ships with women three to four years older and who grew up in a house­hold sur­rounded by strong women, I’m put off by the no­tion of re­duc­ing a “re­la­tion­ship” to a skewed power dy­namic.

While re­la­tion­ship ther­a­pist Paula Quin­see says it’s com­mon for women to seek older, more ma­ture part­ners “be­cause it’s no se­cret that ado­les­cent women ma­ture quicker than men do”, she warns that there are draw­backs to pur­su­ing a union char­ac­terised by a sig­nif­i­cant age gap which go be­yond sim­ple im­prac­ti­cal­i­ties.

“So­cial stig­mas can place ma­jor stress on ei­ther gen­der from an age-gap per­spec­tive, lead­ing to po­ten­tial anx­i­ety and de­pres­sion. In ad­di­tion, hav­ing to take care of the older part­ner later in life can put strain on an in­di­vid­ual, as well as on the re­la­tion­ship as a whole,” she ex­plains.

These stig­mas ap­ply to women who are branded “gold-dig­gers” and “tro­phy wives” or who are seek­ing sugar dad­dies (or “blessers”, in modern par­lance), fa­ther fig­ures and “kept men”.

Quin­see adds that in her pro­fes­sional ex­pe­ri­ence, men with younger part­ners aren’t al­ways en­er­gised by the re­la­tion­ship and women in such re­la­tion­ships could be los­ing more than they re­alise. “The dan­ger is that the younger woman may adapt her lifestyle to meet her part­ner’s habits and could risk be­com­ing ‘old be­fore her time’. Thus, her so­cial cir­cles, life ex­pe­ri­ences and life-stages are mod­i­fied to suit her older part­ner and at some point, she may feel she’s been de­prived of a lot of the plea­sure she might have had.”

“Hav­ing to take care of an older part­ner later in life can put strain on an in­di­vid­ual, as well as on the re­la­tion­ship as a whole.”

Per­haps chas­ing af­ter the elixir of eter­nal youth is an ex­er­cise in fu­til­ity and a re­la­tion­ship should never be de­fined by age. Af­ter all, there are plenty of other mean­ing­ful fac­tors to con­sider when it comes to en­hanc­ing longevity – lead­ing a healthy lifestyle and de­vel­op­ing your char­ac­ter can en­hance both the qual­ity and length of your life and comes with the ad­di­tional fil­lip of mak­ing you more at­trac­tive to po­ten­tial part­ners.

And be­fore you think of tar­get­ing only sig­nif­i­cantly younger part­ners, con­sider this: ev­ery time you sing the Gummy Bears theme tune, do you re­ally want to have to ex­plain that great an­i­mated work of art?

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