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”?
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?