A new study reports that Finnish men who became fathers before age 25 were more likely to die in middle age. The findings raise questions about whether the stress of early parenthood had an especially strong impact on these men.
What the study showed
Younger men were less likely to have planned for children and needed to become breadwinners quickly to support their new families, said study lead author Elina Einio, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Helsinki in Finland. "Suddenly taking on the combined role of father and breadwinner may have caused considerable psychological and economic stress for a young man not ready for his new role," he said.
The researchers wanted to understand better why other studies have shown similar patterns. Using census data, they drew a sample of 10 percent of Finnish men born between 1940 and 1950. Those who had at least one child were tracked between the ages of 45 and 54. The researchers then limited the study to more than 11,700 brothers.
Narrowing the study further to 1,124 siblings, the researchers found that men who had their first child before age 22 were 73 percent more likely to die in their late 40s and early 50s than their brothers who first became fathers at ages 25 and 26. And those who became parents when they were 22 to 24 years of age were 63 percent more likely to die in middle age.
Overall, 5 percent of the fathers (or one in 20) died in their late 40s and early 50s. The most common causes of death were heart disease (21 percent) and alcohol-related illnesses such as alcohol poisoning (16 percent).
The death rate sounds high, but Einio said Finnish life expectancy is "pretty average for high-income countries." As for the fact that the men were born during and just after World War II, an especially traumatic era in Finland, Einio said the war's effects had largely waned by the time the men had kids.
"We believe that our results can be quite safely generalised to men born in the 1940s and 1950s in other Western countries," Einio said. "For these men, marriage was relatively universal and childlessness relatively uncommon."
Emily Grundy, a professor of demography at the London School of Economics and Political Science in England, reviewed the study and agreed with Einio that stress could be a factor.
Working extra hours instead of getting training may cause stress, she said, adding that younger men may be less able to handle the pressures of parenthood.
Oystein Kravdal, a professor of demography at the University of Oslo in Norway, also reviewed the findings and cited another possibility, one that the researchers tried to account for: "The brother who has an early child may have other attitudes, resources and personality traits than the one who has a late first birth, and these factors may also have a bearing on mortality." These factors could have greater impact than stress, Kravdal said.
What do the findings mean for men born after 1950? Einio cautioned that the study findings may not apply because parenthood in later life and remaining unmarried have become more common. Also, the researchers only found an association, not a cause-and-effect link, between age of fatherhood and age at death.
Whatever the case, "it is important for young men to wait until they are sure they are ready for the responsibilities of fatherhood," Einio said. "Some young men can be pretty mature at an early age and others not at all. Young men who decide to have children should be supported in their choice."
The study appears in the Aug. 3 issue of Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health.
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Sources National Fatherhood Initiative.