Linah Mmola was born in Limpopo and apparently turned 117 years old recently in Tembisa, South Africa. I say ‘apparently’ because there is some debate about Linah’s birthday: her family believe it was January 2nd 1898 but there are (perhaps understandably) no documents to prove it. Whether Linah is 117 or a little younger, though, there is little reason to doubt she’s lived a very long life. Her secret? Well, she told the local Eyewitness News that her longevity was down to ‘staying true to one good man for many years‘, as well as a diet of spinach and corn meal porridge.
At least we think she did’: it’s not clear from the reports whether Linah gave this reason or one of her family.
But let’s assume she did say it: could it be true?
Plausibility rating: 5 out of 10. We know (see Ways to Live to 100 no. 12) that loneliness and isolation can be bad for us but it’s a big stretch from there to concluding that monogamy is good for us. There is some academic research to suggest that marriage might be beneficial. One 1995 US study called, perhaps inevitably, ‘Til death do us part‘ found that married people had longer lives than single people. However that in itself does not mean that monogamy leads to a longer life. For one thing, married people are not necessarily monogamous, as the data leak from the AshleyMadison website this month reminds us. Nor can marital status at time of death – which many of the studies use – distinguish between lifelong pairings and deathbed dalliances. Finally, it’s also possible that those in good health are more likely to get married in the first place, rather than it being wedlock that leads to healthiness. There is an entertaining run-through of other possible health benefits of marriage here. However when a link about married women takes us not to an academic text but at a Beyonce video we know that we are on shaky ground.
For the opposition, one lovely piece of research by the University of Sheffield bangs the drum for polygamy. It found that men aged 60+ from countries that practice polygamy lived on average 12% longer than men from mostly monogamous nations. ‘Want to live longer? Get a second wife’ said the New Scientist while the Daily Mail found an expert to say that men in polygamous marriages ‘benefit from having a fuss made over them by a gaggle of women’ as well as being better cared for into old age.
While that may not be conclusive proof (not least because it tells us nothing about the longevity of women in polygamous marriages – or the longevity of men and women in polyandrous marriages, for that matter) it is enough to conclude that the case for monogamy and long life is, at best, not proved.