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Call Your Guy Friend

New studies suggest that single men lack the social support that may keep people healthier—particularly when they have cancer

Bachelor life may have much to recommend it, but it’s the worst-case scenario for cancer patients — especially if they’re white and male. A new study published in the journal Cancer finds that being unmarried increases the risk of dying from cancer, and the impact is greatest among non-Hispanic white men. Among that demographic, unmarried male cancer patients have a mortality rate as much as 24 percent higher than that of their married peers.

Research has long supported the idea that married people live longer than their single counterparts, and that men see a particularly pronounced benefit. Married people tend to be better off financially, of course, and wealthier people live longer. But a companion study also published in Cancer found that the difference in cancer survival rates is “minimally explained by differences in economic resources” — which is to say that financial factors are not the major issue here.

Researchers don’t know exactly what it is about marriage that helps people live longer, but it’s easy to speculate. Your spouse might nag you to get that mole checked out or remind you to take your prescriptions. And married men, in particular, are happier than unmarried ones, which might lead them to take better care of themselves.

The new studies, which incorporated data from nearly 800,000 cancer patients in California, found that female cancer patients also have higher mortality rates if they are single, but the difference was less pronounced — 17 percent among non-Hispanic whites. Women are, of course, more likely to go to the doctor than men, whether or not they have a partner to remind them. Women, too, tend to have stronger social ties than men do, which could be part of what helps them look after their health.

“Men benefit differently from being married than women do,” says Scarlett Lin Gomez of the Cancer Prevention Institute of California. “They tend to benefit socially more; women seem to benefit more from the economic aspect of it.”

This gender difference holds true for a wide range of health outcomes, adds Gomez, who is senior author of one of the new papers and lead author of the other. “There’s research showing that health behaviors — being more physically active, eating healthier — seem to improve more for men than for women with marriage.”

The relationship between social bonds and physical health is underscored by another finding from the new studies: Cancer patients had better survival rates if they were born outside the U.S. The researchers speculate that this may be because foreign-born patients have stronger social networks outside of marriage, Gomez says. As immigrant families acculturate to the U.S., these support networks diminish, making the social impact of marriage much more significant.

The studies’ findings are especially noteworthy because growing numbers of Americans are marrying later in life or not at all. And as much as recent media coverage has focused on the rise of the single American woman, the percentage of single men is increasing more quickly. As of 2012, 23 percent of American men over the age of 25 had never married, compared to 17 percent for women. In 1960, those figures were 10 percent and 8 percent, respectively.

As more and more Americans remain unmarried, men are going to need to get better at managing their own health—and maybe at helping their friends do the same. “If you’re single, you can certainly reach out to your social networks and take advantage of the support that’s available around you,” Gomez says. After all, you don’t need to get married to have people in your life who will look out for you. Maybe you just need a friend.

Serena Golden is an editor at MEL.