Gut Check looks at health claims made by studies, newsmakers, or conventional wisdom. We ask: Should you believe this?
ou may feel that your kids are sending you to an early grave, but parents live longer than childless people, especially once they reach 80, found a study in Sweden — and the longevity edge becomes greater as parents get older.
Tell me more:
Many studies have found an association between parenthood and lower mortality (a lower chance of dying over some period of time). But there are many possible explanations for that finding: Maybe people with serious illnesses are too unhealthy to become parents in the first place and so die earlier from their underlying poor health and not their childlessness. Or, parents are more likely to be married than childless people are, and marriage is associated with greater longevity; pregnancy and nursing reduce women’s risk of breast cancer; and parents have healthier behaviors than childless people.
Scientists at Sweden’s Karolinska Institute therefore looked deeper to try to figure out what was going on.
Analyzing records from 1.4 million people born in Sweden from 1911 to 1925, they found that at age 60, the chance of dying in the next year was 0.6 percentage points lower for fathers versus childless men. At age 80, it was 0.9 percentage points lower, and at 90, it was 1.47 points lower. For women, a 0.16 percentage point advantage at age 60 rose to 0.71 points at 80 and 1.1 at 90.
In other words, the older you get, the greater the advantage of having adult children, scientists led by epidemiologist Karin Modig reported in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health.
The greater benefit of parenthood for men, especially unmarried men, is in line with other studies showing that, with age, more men than women lose the social connections linked to better health, and therefore count on their adult children to fill the gap. The edge was also somewhat greater for widows and widowers and divorced people. That suggests that children become even more important for staying alive if a spouse is no longer around.
The researchers used standard statistical tools to account for other factors linked to living longer, including the higher education levels of parents compared with childless people, and the higher likelihood that parents are married than non-parents. The parent advantage remained. Although Modig said there are “definitely” other such “confounding variables,” or factors related to why parents live longer than non-parents, outside experts were impressed with the analysis.
“Those other [unaccounted-for] factors wouldn’t account for the large effect they found,” said biostatistician Jenna Krall of George Mason University, who reviewed the study for STAT.
This is the first study to look for and find a larger parenthood benefit at older ages. That suggests the reason is not that healthier people become parents. If that were so, the advantage of parenthood would show up at all ages, as the unhealthy and frail die before their time. Some of that was going on: Mortality was higher for childless 60-year-olds compared to 60-year-old parents. But the ever-growing longevity benefit after age 80 suggests that something about the presence of adult children indeed makes a difference. “It’s compelling that they see an increase in the [benefit] as people age,” Krall said.
What’s so great about adult children? They can help with everything from navigating the health care system to providing companionship and shouldering stress, which can boost longevity. Such intangibles are more likely to explain the parent advantage than direct caregiving, since how close adult children lived to their elderly parents didn’t matter. That might be because higher education among children is associated with moving farther away, Modig said, and being well-educated may enable children to help their parents even more than being nearby does.
The results might not apply to every country, and even the researchers are modest about what they found. “The presence of children is only one, relatively small, factor among many that affects mortality in old age,” Modig said.
The longevity bonus from parenthood is real and likely due to social factors that become more important the older you get.