It’s well established that people who have children tend to live longer, on average, than childless individuals.
But the reason for parenthood’s protective effect is unclear. It may be, as one study suggested, because parents tend to lead healthier lifestyles. (They smoke less and exercise more, for example.) Or it may be because parents are more likely to be married, and marriage is strongly associated with greater longevity, particularly for men.
Yet another possibility may be related to the fact that pregnancy and breastfeeding reduce a woman’s chance of breast and ovarian cancer, although that wouldn’t explain why men with children also live longer.
A team of Swedish scientists suspected, however, that a different factor might be involved: that parenthood’s longevity advantage was due to the support that adult children provide to their parents in old age. To test this hypothesis, they took a deep dive into their country’s various national registries, sorting through demographic and death data collected from 1.4 million people born in Sweden from 1911 to 1925.
They found that people who had at least one child did, indeed, live longer, on average, than those who remained childless — and that the older people got, the greater the parental advantage. They also found evidence that those extra months and years were probably due to the physical care and social support that children provide in their parents’ old age.
Their findings were published earlier this month in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health.
Death risk differences
Here are the specifics of what the study’s analysis of the Swedish data showed:
At age 60, the likelihood of dying within the next year was 0.6 percentage points lower for men with children than for men without children. At age 80, it was 0.9 percentage points lower, and at age 90, it was 1.47 percentage points lower.
A similar trend was found among women. At age 60, women with children were 0.16 percentage points less likely to die within the next 12 months than women without children. At age 80, that likelihood was 0.71 percentage points lower, and at age 90, it was 1.1 percentage points lower.
These differences held even after accounting for other factors believed linked to living longer, such as level of education.
The finding that the death risk difference between parents and nonparents increased with age agrees with other research that suggests people without children face “support deficits” only toward the end of their lives, say the researchers.
Because of their children, elderly parents may not experience those deficits — and therefore live longer.
The analysis also found that the death risk differences were stronger among men. This finding “is in line with a previous study where contact with children was associated with better health among parents, and more so for men than for women,” write the study’s authors.
Contrary to previous research, the Swedish study found no support for the hypothesis that having a daughter helps more than having a son in terms of living longer — perhaps, say the study’s authors, because Sweden has free, universal health care that is relatively easy to access and navigate, for sons as well as daughters. (Yes, they do seem to make that disparaging dig at sons.)
Limitations and implications
Of course, this study is observational, which means it can’t prove that supportive children are why parents tend to live longer into old age than their childless peers. Also, the study involved only people living in Sweden, and therefore its findings may not apply to other populations, including people living in the United States.
It’s also important to remember that even if parenthood does have an effect on longevity, it’s unlikely to be the most important one. Other factors — ones having to do with genetics, lifestyle and just plain luck — will have a much bigger impact on how long you live.
Still, “support from adult children to aging parents may be of importance for parental health and longevity,” the researchers conclude.
It may just feel (at times) that your children are sending you to an early grave.
FMI: You can read the study on the website of the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health.