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Relationships and romance, Social and behavioural

Couples with ‘drinking partnership’ may live longer

Having similar, moderate drinking habits linked to partners' longevity.

10 April 2024

By Emily Reynolds

Much research has been done on the health impacts of drinking alcohol, and in particular on its connection with mortality. In 2021, nearly 10,000 people in the UK died from alcohol-specific causes — the highest number on record, and a clear sign of the impact drinking can have. Relationships, too, are often impacted by alcohol use.

However, some surprisingly positive links have also emerged between such vices and marital satisfaction. Data shows that when the alcohol use of partners is in step, couples report better quality marriages, and remain married longer than those whose drinking habits differ; a concept that has been dubbed 'the drinking partnership'.

Inspired by these findings, a University of Michigan team led by Kira Birditt sought to go further, asking whether drinking concordance can also have an impact on mortality. In their recent paper, they find that spouses who drank similar, moderate amounts lived longer than both those who drank discordantly and, interestingly, those who did not drink at all.

Participants were drawn from a longitudinal study of 22,000 people initially recruited in 1996 or 1998 and who completed in interview alongside their partner every two years. Of this group, 9,312 participants from 4,656 couples aged 50 or older were included in the analysis.

Firstly, the team drew out data on alcohol use. Participants were asked whether they ever drank alcohol, as well as indicating how many days a week they had drunk over the last three months and how many drinks they had on those days. Drinking was fairly widespread; nearly 60% of husbands and just shy of 50% of wives reported drinking something in the previous three months. The team also looked at mortality, tracking which participants had passed away and the number of years they had participated in the study.

Compared with couples where both drank in the last three months (which had the best survival rate), risk of mortality increased by 24% in couples where neither drank, 15% in couples where the study participant drank and their partner did not, and 33% in couples where the partner drank and the participant did not. These findings suggest that couples who drink concordantly have better survival rates than couples who do not, as well as those who are teetotal.

In couples where the husband didn't drink but the wife did, the wife's mortality was lowest when she had one drink per week, and greater when she had eight or more drinks per week. When their husbands had around two to ten drinks per week, women's morality was higher when they had no drinks compared to a similarly moderate two to seven drinks.

So, knowing what we do about the impact of alcohol on health, why do couples who drink concordantly seem to live longer? A third common factor is likely to mediate this relationship; well-matched couples often enjoy similar activities, and the harmony this brings to relationships likely has positive impacts on health, leading couples towards longevity. The authors of this study also point to insights from work on Socioemotional Selectivity Theory, which has shown that as people age, they become more invested in maintaining good quality relationships – they believe that similar drinking habits may be part of that larger dynamic. 

The relationship between drinking concordance and mortality is more complex and multifactoral than simply aligning this single behaviour — further research will be needed better tease these various connections apart. It's also worth noting that the results of this study stand somewhat at odds with a previous paper which found drinking concordance to also be associated with poor health and higher blood pressure, suggesting the continued need for nuanced approaches to this topic, and emphasis on moderation. For now, at least, these results add some weight to the sentiment that harmony with your partner has its benefits.

Read the paper in full.