MONDAY, May 13, 2013 (HealthDay News) -- The notion of wealthy "sugar daddies" with young, pretty wives and well-heeled "cougar" women with handsome, young husbands may be more fiction than fact, new research suggests.
Couples with big age differences are typically less attractive, less educated and make less money than couples of similar ages, according to a new study. And the greater the age difference, the greater these negatives, the researchers said. Commonly held beliefs about cougars and sugar daddies are misconceptions, they concluded.
"Hugh Hefner is an outlier," said study co-author Hani Mansour, an assistant professor of economics at the University of Colorado, Denver, in a university news release. "Our results call into question the conventional wisdom regarding differently aged couples."
In conducting the study, the researchers analyzed data collected by the U.S. Census Bureau from 1960 to 2000. They focused on the age when people first got married, when they completed their education and their salary and earnings. They also examined a 1979 national survey of youth to assess people's mental skills.
Physical attractiveness was gauged from another national survey on adolescent health. Interviewers conducting that survey rated participants on a scale of one to five with one being "very unattractive" and five being "very attractive."
People with higher abilities attending four-year colleges tend to interact more with people their own age, researchers found. Upon graduation, they pursue careers with upward mobility at a time when many people think about marriage.
In contrast, the study showed people who attend community colleges or work in low-skill jobs are more likely to socialize with people of a wide range of ages. This increases the likelihood of marrying someone a lot younger or older, according to the study's authors.
"It really depends on who your social network is," Mansour said. "People with lower earning potential are in networks that are more age diverse."
Men married to younger or older spouses made less money than men married to spouses their own age, the researchers added. For instance, in 1980, Census data revealed that men married to women eight or more years younger or older earned on average nearly $3,500 less annually than men who were no more than one year older or younger than their wives.
Women married to much older or younger men actually made more money than their spouses. This was due to working more hours, not earning a bigger salary, the researchers said.
Based on tests conducted in high school, the study also revealed that people married to much older or younger spouses performed worse on verbal, math and arithmetic reasoning tests.
Although men married to someone at least eight years younger scored on average 8.4 points less on tests than men married to someone their own age, women had a less drastic discrepancy.
Couples with big age differences tend to be less attractive, the study found. Men married to older women may be the exception, however.
The study authors said that instances of women who marry much younger spouses are nothing new. "We really didn't find any evidence of a new cougar phenomenon," Mansour said. "Although their share has slightly increased over time, cougars have been among us since the 1960s."
An increasing number of people are choosing to marry someone closer to their own age, the researchers said. "The benefits from marriage might be changing. When you are close in age you can do things together," Mansour said. "You can have children when both parties want to, retire at the same time and grow old together."
The study recently appeared online in the Review of Economics and Statistics.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provides statistics on U.S. marriages.