Could having children make you live longer? A new study suggests parenting does protect against early death.
They may feel like they are going to be the death of you, but having kids may not take years off your life. In fact, a study published Thursday shows that people who tried but failed to have children are two to four times more likely to die young than parents.
The startling findings support other research that shows childless couples don’t live as long as parents. They also add another piece to the puzzle: This one looks at people who either adopted children, or had them through fertility treatments.
It’s a way to filter out people who choose not to have children, says Esben Agerbo of Aarhus University in Denmark, who led the study.
“Several previous studies have found strong associations between childlessness and psychiatric illness,” Agerbo told NBC News by email. “I think that our study is superior, because it is only based on people who want to have children, whereas previous research included everybody,” Agerbo said.
Agerbo was able to make use of Denmark’s detailed and complete system of medical records. They looked at data on 21,276 childless couples who registered for in vitro fertilization (IVF) treatment between 1994 and 2005. The first three cycles of IVF were free until 2010 in Denmark’s national health system.
During this time, 15,210 children were born and 1,564 were adopted, Agerbo reports in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health. And over the same time, 96 of the women and 200 of the men died. Four times as many women who did not have children died as women who had or adopted a child, Agerbo’s team found. Death rates were twice as high among the men who did not have children.
“Mindful that association is not causation, our results suggest that the mortality rates are higher in the childless,” the researchers wrote.
What could the reason be?
“Parents are less likely to die from accidents, circulatory diseases, cancer, and external causes -- thus I suggest a behavioral difference,” Agerbo says. “Our study was not large enough to say whether suicide was less common among parents, but the rate of accidents is higher among non-parents -- perhaps I am more prone to buy a big motorcycle or a fast car than family-friendly slow van.”
Alice Domar, a psychologist at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston and director of mind-body services at Boston IVF, agrees. “When you have kids, it completely changes the way you live your life. I suspect that is what going on,” she said.
And while the study didn’t show any difference in psychiatric illness between people who had children using IVF and those who did not, the parents who ended up adopting children were half as likely to be diagnosed with mental illness.