People who have never had children are more likely to die prematurely and develop mental problems than those who have had children, researchers from Aarhus University, Denmark, reported in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.

The authors added that the link between shorter lifespans, mental health and childlessness is particularly noticeable among women.

The belief that having children may shorten our lives is a myth, the researchers explained, as the reverse seems to be the case.

The authors, after gathering and examining data from a large study of childless couples, those treated for infertility, various population registers on births and deaths, IVF procedures, hospital admissions, psychiatric service contacts, labor market statistics, and couples who adopted children, also found that childless couples who adopted children were half as likely to development mental health problems, compared to couples with no children who did not adopt.

They analyzed data from 1994 to 2008. During this period, 21,276 couples with no children registered for IVF treatment, 15,210 children were born, and 1,564 children were adopted in Denmark.

Although this is not the first study to find an association between childlessness and higher death rates, previous studies had generally linked unhealthy behaviors and poor mental and physical health to shorter lifespans. None of the studies had differentiated between people who were deliberately childless and those who wanted children but could not have any, the authors wrote.

A team from Stanford University School of Medicine reported in Human Reproduction in September 2011 that a man who never had children has a higher risk of dying from cardiovascular disease than men with children. They emphasized that according to their data, it was not possible to definitely link infertility with cardiovascular disease risk.

A separate Danish study reported in July 2012 that females with fertility problems who remained childless were much more likely to have psychiatric problems than their counterparts who had at least one baby.

Ninety-six women and 200 men from the population sample studied died, which worked out to be a death rate of 51 (female) and 117 (male) per 100,000 person years. 710 females and 553 males were diagnosed with a mental health problem, which corresponds to a 385 (female) and 299 (male) per 100,000 years.

The study showed that having a child reduced the risk of premature death, and significantly so among women.

The authors also found that:

  • Premature death risk from accidents, cancers and circulatory diseases was four times greater among childless women than women who gave birth to at least one child
  • Premature death risk from circulatory diseases, accidents and cancer among childless women was twice as high compared to women who never had biological children but adopted at least one child
  • Men who never had children, either biologically or through adoption had twice the premature death rate compared to those who either adopted or had their own kids
  • Mental illness problems were half as prevalent among couples who adopted, compared to childless couples who never adopted

Investigators from the Centre for Population Studies, School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, London, reported in 2006 that several factors related to having or not having children affect a woman’s lifetime risk of health problems and early death.

The following factors may increase the risk of early death and/or poorer health later in life for women:

  • Being childless
  • Having five or more children
  • Having a baby when the mother is in her teens
  • There is a gap of less than 18 months between giving birth to one baby and the next

Written by Joseph Nordqvist