06 June 2008

Having children live longer

Wer Kinder hat, wird älterFelix Berth, Süddeutschen Zeitung, 06.06.2008

Translation: Inopressa

Children make their parents' lives more diverse, chaotic and stressful. However, despite all the hardships caused by parental responsibilities, having children undoubtedly prolongs life. Some time ago it became known that mothers get some types of cancer less often than childless women. Now two demographers have proved that men with children also live longer. Emily Grundu and Eystein Kravdal write in the American Journal of Epidemiology (Reproductive History and Mortality in Late Middle Age among Norwegian Men and Women – VM) that men with children have a 35% lower risk of death than their childless peers. Obviously, people who are parents are more careful in life. "Those who have children prefer a healthier lifestyle," Kravdal explains this fact.

Scientists working at the universities of London and Oslo analyzed the biographies of 1.5 million Norwegians aged 45 to 68 years. They examined more than 60 thousand deaths and tried to establish a link between education, marital status and the number of children, on the one hand, and life expectancy, on the other. For the fact that scientists were able to estimate such a huge amount of data, we should thank the Scandinavian combination of thoroughness of official departments and relative indifference to data protection: at birth, every Norwegian receives an identification number, which is then used in kindergartens, schools, doctors, financial authorities and other official departments. Scientists can also use this information without specifying personal data; thus, research becomes possible, which the rest of the scientific world can only dream of.

Grundu and Kravdal were the first to take up the topic of the relationship between fatherhood and life expectancy; after all, a few years ago, interest existed only in the topic of the relationship between motherhood and mortality. The study found that the effect of parenthood is similar for both sexes. For example, the risk of death of a mother of two children is 50% less than that of a childless woman of the same age group (from 45 to 68 years). The risk of death of fathers is 35% lower than that of childless men.

Of course, the risk depends not only on the number of children, Kravdal notes. Education is of approximately the same importance: the risk of death for men and women with higher education is half that of people with primary education of the same age group. And someone who lives separately or is divorced is at greater risk than his peer who lives with a partner.

Despite the statistically obvious data, Grundu and Kravdal are cautious in their conclusions. The fact that mothers live longer than childless women has, on the one hand, physiological reasons; on the other hand, men and women are influenced by social factors. "Parents are less likely to take risks than people who do not have children, in addition, in old age they receive support from their children," Kravdal believes.

With all that, there may be an inverse relationship: perhaps people who are initially less healthy are less likely to have children. Which connection is stronger cannot be determined solely on the basis of statistical data. Therefore, Kravdal refuses to confirm that the birth rate, which is now growing in Germany, strengthens the health of the nation. "Unfortunately, we cannot draw such far–reaching conclusions," he says.

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