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She worked under the guidance of Susan Averett, Dana Professor and head of economics and business

Does marriage affect a person’s health? That’s the question Julia Sorkin ’09 (Whippany, N.J.) examined this summer. Sorkin, a double major in economics & business and psychology, worked with Susan Averett, Dana Professor and head of economics and business, to research the effects of marriage on one’s health.

“Our project used Canadian data from the National Public Health Survey (NPHS),” Sorkin explains. “We looked at factors such as obesity, distress, smoking, chronic conditions, and functional ability, and also were interested in comparing the self-reported health status and prevention methods taken by individuals in different marital groups. We wanted to see if there is a significant health difference between married and single individuals and whether cohabiting couples follow the same trends as those who are married.”

The NPHS survey followed 17,000 people over a 12-year period.

“We examined the relationship between marital status and various measures of health,” Averett notes. “We attempt to distinguish between four competing but not mutually exclusive hypotheses—selection, protection, social obligation, and marriage market—that might explain the relationship between marital status transitions and changes in our various health measures.”

According to Averett:

  • The selection hypothesis indicates that those who are healthier are more likely to be selected into marriage.
  • The protection hypothesis states that married adults will have better physical health due to the increased social support and marriage and reduced incidence of risky behavior among married individuals.
  • The social obligation hypothesis states that those in relationships may eat more regular meals and/or richer and denser foods due to social obligations one of which may be marriage and may thus be less healthy.
  • The marriage market hypothesis indicates that when adults are no longer in the marriage market they may not maintain a healthy BMI or take care of their health because doing so is costly and they are in a stable union-or on the other hand, adults may prepare for the marriage market by losing weight and adopting healthier lifestyles.

“The project’s preliminary results indicate that there is a selection into marriage, and to a lesser extent cohabitation, for those individuals who are healthier—i.e. adults prefer to marry those who are healthy,” she adds. “We have sixteen different measures of health which range from a self-reported health index, an index of chronic stress, the measurement of the Body Mass Index to physician-diagnosed chronic conditions including diabetes and heart disease. We find that after controlling statistically for this selection factor and a host of family background and sociodemographic factors, married people are generally healthier than their non-married counterparts—and that this is an effect of marriage itself.”

For the first few weeks of this project, Sorkin researched similar past studies to become knowledgeable about the topic and to understand how economic studies are conducted. Next, she programmed variables in STATA software using the variable codes found in the NPHS data dictionary and merged the data by ID numbers so she and Averett could begin running tests and analyze the data.

“I had never realized how much of an impact one’s marital status has on all aspects of life, from economic earnings to happiness to obesity,” Sorkin says. “It is very interesting to look at these trends and patterns and to hypothesis why we receive the results we do. Policymakers are looking to encourage marriage by reexamining the marriage disincentives of the income tax system as well as welfare and social security. The results of this study will add to this discussion by providing support for pro-marriage legislation.”

Sorkin is interested in economics; however, she’s still trying to determine what aspect of the field she likes best. This project, she explains, has allowed her to experience first-hand the type of work that a research micro-economist conducts.

“I have always been interested in why people behave the way they do,” she notes. “Economics looks to answer such questions from a very rational perspective. It is the study of scarcity and choices where people act when the pros outweigh the cons.”

Sorkin says she benefited tremendously from Averett’s guidance.

“Professor Averett is an amazing professor and it’s an honor to have the opportunity to work with her,” Sorkin notes. “She has found the perfect balance of guiding me through the process while still treating me like a partner in her work. I have learned so much from this experience and I’ve had a great time along the way.”

Ironically, Averett had no plans to work with a student on an EXCEL project this summer. That is, until Sorkin asked about the program.

“I certainly do have high regard for Julia,” Averett says. “I met her in my micro class last fall where she was an excellent student. When she came to me to ask about EXCEL in general, I was actually not going to have an EXCEL student this summer for various reasons, but I remembered her performance from my class, and asked her if she was interested. She has been terrific. It has been a real pleasure for me to work with her.”

The opportunity to forge such relationships is a key reason Sorkin believes Lafayette is an ideal setting for undergraduate study and academic programs, such as EXCEL.

“Because of Lafayette’s small size, students are able to establish real relationships with their professors,” she points out. “The professors know who you are and they take the time to make sure that you understand what you are learning. Another major benefit is that since Lafayette does not have a graduate program, undergrad students are given the opportunity to work first hand with professors and to experience what work in the field is like. And Lafayette is an excellent academic environment for projects like this. The library is filled with resources and the librarians are extremely helpful and patient with students who are using new databases and conducting advanced research for the first time.”

In addition to her academic work, Sorkin is the team leader for the Landis Community Outreach Center’s Kids In the Community (KIC) program, which is an after-school program for children living in the Easton housing projects. She also is the president of Lafayette’s Women’s Club Soccer team, a peer tutor, and a member of the Investment Club.

In Lafayette’s distinctive EXCEL Scholars program, students conduct research with faculty while earning a stipend. The program has helped to make Lafayette a national leader in undergraduate research. Many of the more than 160 students who participate each year share their work through articles in academic journals and/or conference presentations.

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