Researchers have found that people who have children are more likely to live slightly longer than those who don’t. There have been media organizations that have embellished this research to make it more than it actually is:
- Have scientists discovered the fountain of youth?
- Parenting can help people live longer
- Is parenting an elixir for longevity?
- As a parent, you live longer
None of these accurately reflect the results of this study. It’s important to understand the difference between “causality” (one thing directly causing the other thing) and “association” (the observation that two things happen together) when learning about the results of a study involving the two things compares . The study of a link between longer life and parenthood did not prove that having children makes you live longer; but to grab your attention, the headlines suggest a more provocative title.
What did the study actually reveal?
Collecting data on everyone born in Sweden between 1911 and 1925, the study of more than 1.4 million people found the following:
- Life expectancy was 1.5 years longer for women and two years longer for men over the age of 60 had a slightly longer life expectancy if they had children.
- the, the lived on oxygen until the age of 80Life expectancy was even longer, seven months longer for women and nine months longer for men.
- The slightly increased life expectancy did not appear to be influenced by other factors, such as whether the parents were married or not and the sex of their children.
Are these the results you were expecting based on some of the headlines you’ve seen? As parents endure the inevitable financial and emotional stress of childbirth, it might seem that parents would not live longer compared to those who are childless.
Why do parents have a longer life expectancy?
The logical question is why, given the results of this study. Here are some explanations from previous studies and speculation by the author:
- A person with children tends to have more social interactions than a childless person (eg, with other parents), and higher social contact has been associated with longer life.
- Children tend to be more supportive as their parents get older, while childless people don’t have that benefit.
- Parents may have healthier habits—more physical activity, less smoking, and better nutrition than childless people.
A combination of all of these and other factors can account for the results. In the latest research, none of them have been specifically studied.
What difference does it make?
Speculations as to why longer lifespans might come with parenthood, and whether it’s true across the board (rather than reflecting something unique about those born in Sweden in the early 20th century), are included in this new study.
In this research, observations can be more than just interesting. If the reasons why parents live longer are because they get support and have more social interaction with their children as they get older, then we should consider childlessness and social isolation in old age as a health threat. We should encourage people without children to engage in activities that promote social interaction (such as joining a sports group or volunteering). Expanding programs to support lonely older people could help narrow the life expectancy gap between those who have children and those who don’t.