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16 March 2017

Can children make you live longer?

A new study found that the risk of death is lower among people who have at least one child than it is among those who are childless.

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Children can sometimes feel like a big responsibility. You have to cater for all their needs, like taking them to soccer practice, and even stand by as they throw a tantrum – but luckily, if you survive the lack of sleep, raucous behaviour and teenage problems, you may end up living longer than your peers who don't have children.

Parenthood appears to help delay death as you grow older, with parents living longer than those who are childless, Swedish researchers found.

The differences in longevity were not overwhelming, however. The new study was published online in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health.

Son or daughter makes no difference

For example, fathers were expected to live two years longer than non-fathers at age 60, while mothers were expected to live 1.5 years longer than non-mothers, according to the study.

By age 80, dads were expected to live about 8 months longer and moms about 7 months longer than non-parents, the findings suggested.

"Parents live longer than non-parents, even in the oldest ages," said lead author Karin Modig, an assistant professor of epidemiology with the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm.

This survival benefit occurs regardless of whether parents have a son or a daughter, the researchers said, although the study did not prove that having children causes an increase in lifespan.

Modig and her colleagues used national Swedish health data to track all men and women born between 1911 and 1925 in that country. The study wound up including nearly 705 000 men and more than 725 000 women.

At least one child

The researchers compared life expectancy with marital status and parenthood, to see whether having a child influenced how long a person lived.

As expected, the study found that the risk of death rose for everyone as they got older. But the risk remained lower among those who had had at least one child than it was among those who were childless.

"The absolute difference in death risk between parents and non-parents increases with age between age 60 and 100," Modig said. "These differences persist into, and even grow larger, in old age."

At age 60, the difference in the one-year risk of death was 0.1% among men and 0.2% among women. By the age of 90, these differences had risen to 1.5% among men and to 1.1% among women.

The researchers could not say exactly why having a child appears to increase life expectancy.

Providing important support

It's possible that parents have more healthy behaviours than childless people, Modig said. Childlessness also could be a sign of natural selection, indicating that people who don't have kids are subject to biological or social challenges that affect their life expectancy, she suggested.

A more likely explanation is that parents have adult children around to help care for them as they grow older, Modig said.

"Children probably provide important support to their ageing parents," Modig said. "Ageing individuals without children or other close kin maybe need to get extra support elsewhere."

The link between parenthood and death risk was found for both married and unmarried people, but seemed to be stronger for unmarried men.

Unmarried fathers might be relying more heavily on their children in the absence of a partner, the study authors suggested.

Ageing parents also probably benefit from more social interaction, thanks to their adult children and grandchildren, said Dr Gisele Wolf-Klein. She is director of geriatric education at Northwell Health in Great Neck, New York.

Social involvement has been shown to be critically important to healthy ageing, she noted.

"We humans are social animals, for better or worse. We benefit and thrive from each other's company," Wolf-Klein said. "My hunch is it does not matter what you do with the kids. If you are exposed to a family, that will maintain you emotionally or physically."

Childless seniors can help extend their life by joining groups, volunteering and essentially building their own family, Wolf-Klein said. They also can reach out to programmes that provide the kind of support one would expect from a son or daughter – for example, programmes that help deliver groceries or drive you to doctor's appointments.

"If you're childless, that doesn't mean you can't link yourself to a group," Wolf-Klein said.

Read More:

Have humans hit their longevity limit?

Parents of kids with diabetes need to plan for school

Are you pushing your kids too hard?

 
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