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Parenting is Good for Your Health

A study from Denmark finds that people who become parents live longer

After a holiday of excessive family togetherness, the findings of a recent study from Denmark might be met with a certain amount of skepticism -- that having children actually makes their parents live longer. Or at least keeps them from dying young.

The findings arose from a "natural experiment" at fertility clinics in Denmark: a bunch of couples come in for IVF, and only about half of them actually leave with a child. So most of the relevant variables that might differentiate the couples in terms of age, overall health, and fertility problems have been corrected for, with the main difference whether or not they actually became parents.

That's the set-up in an experiment reported online in December by the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health. It was based on a study of more than 21,000 couples who attempted IVF in Danish clinics between 1994 and 2008. 

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For women, becoming a parent turned out to be a life saver. Childless women were four times more likely to encounter "premature death" -- death from circulatory disease, cancer, or accident before the generally anticipated natural life span -- than those who gave birth to their own children, and twice as likely as those who adopted a child. The trend was similar among men, but less dramatic: rates of early death were about twice as high among childless men than among men who became fathers through IVF or adoption.

What's a young person considering parenthood to make of these findings? You can't draw too many definite conclusions about the life-affirming nature of parenthood from this study, partly because financial factors probably weren't accounted for in this "natural experiment."  The wealthier couples -- who might be expected to have lower death rates -- might also be the ones who were able to stick with IVF for longer, and might also be the ones who passed the fiscal and physical hurdles necessary to qualify for adoption. But because Denmark is a relatively homogeneous country, and because all the couples involved began at an IVF clinic, some of the differences that could account for the different death rates were probably minimized. 

One explanation might be that once you become a parent, you start taking better care of yourself, and avoid some of the riskier life choices, like motorcycles or drunken binges, that could lead to an earlier death. Or there's always the more Hallmark-card interpretation, one that I'm a little less inclined to believe in my post-holiday grumpiness: that the love of a child is its own life-affirming balm.

Robin Marantz Henig is a science journalist and co-author, with her daughter Samantha Henig, of Twentysomething: Why Do Young Adults Seem Stuck?

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