Childless women run the risk of earlier death and poorer health in later life.
A new study funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) finds that not only childless women but also mothers of five or more children, teenage mothers and mothers who have children with less than an 18 month gap between births all have higher risks of death and poor health later in life.
Findings are based on a study of three separate datasets of women born from 1911 onwards in Great Britain and the USA. "We already know quite of lot about the impact of a person's very early life or their socio-economic history on health and mortality in later life," explains researcher Professor Emily Grundy of the Centre for Population Studies, School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, London. "But, in this study we were able to analyse the long-term health implications of a person's partnership and parenting experiences while taking into account education and other indicators of socio-economic status as well."
The study reveals that partnership and parenting experiences are important influences on later life health. "We show, for example, that having a short birth interval of less than 18 months between children carries higher risks of mortality and poor health," Professor Emily explains. "That finding is particularly interesting because, to our knowledge, it's the first time that later health consequences of birth intervals have been investigated in a developed country population."
Fathers whose wives have short birth intervals also appear to suffer slightly increased mortality risks. Researchers suggest that the physiological and psychosocial stresses associated with caring for young children close in age may be the important factor.
This study also provides further evidence of the link between teenage motherhood and poorer health in later life. It also reveals that teenage mothers have poorer mental health at age 53 than other mothers. "What's particularly interesting here is that our findings indicate poorer health outcomes for women who have children before age 21 regardless of their socio-economic circumstances in childhood," Professor Grundy points out. Previous research has shown that many teenage mothers had already experienced poor health in early childhood. But, this study indicates the higher risks of poorer later life health for teenage mothers whatever their background.
At the other end of the motherhood age scale, this study reveals that women who have a child over the age of 40 experience better health in later life. But the reason, researchers suggest, is not necessarily that having children later makes women healthier rather that women who conceive at that age must already be in good health and feel fit enough to bring children up.
In terms of the influence of partnership on later life health and mortality, this study confirms other research which indicates that marriage provides more health gains for men than women. For men, spending a long time in a stable marriage and avoiding multiple marriages and divorce contributes to long-term health.
For women, too, marriage may be better for their health than they currently believe. The study shows that when self-rating their health, married women report poorer health than unmarried women. But the mortality rates of unmarried women are higher than those of married women.
"We have shown that partnership and parenting histories are important influences on later life health and, in many cases, are as influential as the effects of a person's socio-economic status," Professor Gundy concludes. "Overall, these findings clearly have important implications for projections of the health status of the older population as well as contributing to our understanding of life course influences on health."