In recent decades, the number of single dads in the United States has skyrocketed.
According to the Pew Research Center, fewer than 300,000 households were built around single fathers in 1960. By 2011, however, the number had jumped to more than 2.6 million.
By comparison, single-mom households went from 1.9 million to 8.6 million during that time.
As the authors of the new study note, despite these growing numbers, not enough research has focused on the health of single dads or compared the mortality of single mothers with that of single fathers.
To remedy this, Dr. Maria Chiu — of the Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences and the University of Toronto, both in Canada — and colleagues followed the lifestyles of almost 40,500 Canadians over a period of 11 years.
Death risk doubled among single dads
Of all the participants, 871 were single fathers, 4,590 were single mothers, 16,341 were partnered fathers, and 18,688 were partnered mothers. On average, the participants were aged between 41 and 46.
"Single parents," explain the study authors, "were defined as those who were divorced, separated, widowed, or single, never-married, and non-cohabitating, and partnered parents were defined as those who were married or common-law partners."
In their analysis, Dr. Chiu and her colleagues included people aged 15 and above who lived in the household with at least one biological or adopted child under the age of 25.
Using Cox proportional hazards models, the scientists performed what is — to their knowledge — the "first head-to-head comparison of mortality across single and partnered parent groups."
At the beginning of the study, single dads were more likely to have cancer and heart disease than their partnered counterparts and single mothers. Additionally, they were more likely to have been hospitalized in the year leading up to the study.
Overall, single fathers were found to be more than twice as likely to die prematurely than their partnered counterparts and single mothers.
They also led less healthful lifestyles and were more likely to binge drink once per month as well as consume fewer fruits and vegetables.
Could lifestyle be to blame for death risk?
The study could not draw any conclusions regarding the causes of death, mainly due to the fact that deaths over the study period were recorded as "other causes."
However, the authors speculate on some of the possible causes. The unhealthful lifestyle may play a role, they suggest, as might a lack of social support consisting of friends or other community networks.
Dr. Chiu says, "Our research highlights that single fathers have higher mortality, and demonstrates a need for public health policies to help identify and support these men."
"While our study does not identify the exact cause of this, we did find that single fathers also tend to have unhealthier lifestyles, which could be an important area to address to improve health in this high-risk group."
Dr. Maria Chiu
"Doctors' appointments," she continues, "could be an opportunity for doctors to engage with single fathers to help them to improve their health."
"Research has shown that these conversations can help to motivate patients to adhere to treatment plans, make better decisions about their health, and influence their behavior and recovery," Dr. Chiu concludes.