summary: Having three or more children has been associated with an increased risk of cognitive decline later in life.
source: Columbia University
A new study at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, the Robert Butler Columbia Center on Aging and Paris Dauphine-PSL University finds that having three or more children versus two children has a negative effect on cognition in late life.
The results also indicated that this effect was stronger in Northern Europe, where higher fertility leads to lower financial resources but not improved social resources in this region. This is the first to study the causal effect of higher fertility on cognition in late life.
So far, fertility has not received much attention as a potential predictor of hindsight compared to other factors, such as education or occupation.
The results were published in the journal demography.
“Understanding the factors that contribute to optimal perception of later life is essential to ensuring successful aging at both the individual and societal levels—particularly in Europe, where family size is shrinking and the population is aging rapidly,” said Vigaard Scherbeek, Ph.D., Professor of Population and Family Health at Columbia Mailman School.
“For individuals, cognitive health later in life is essential for maintaining independence, social activity, and productivity in late life. For societies, ensuring cognitive health for older adults is essential to extending working life and reducing health care costs and care needs,” said Eric Bonsang, Ph.D., Professor Economics at Paris Dauphine University – PSL.
The researchers analyzed data from the Health, Aging and Retirement Europe Survey (SHARE) to examine how having three or more children versus two children causally affects cognition later in life.
SHARE surveys are representative samples of older populations in 20 European countries and Israel including Austria, Belgium, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland. Participants were 65 years of age or older and had at least two biological children.
Based on advanced econometric methods capable of separating causation from simple associations, evidence suggests that having three or more children versus two children is associated with later life perception. They also found that this effect was similar for both men and women.
Fertility may affect cognition in late life through several pathways. First, having an extra child often leads to significant financial costs, reduces family income and increases the likelihood of falling below the poverty line, resulting in a lower standard of living for all family members, and possibly causing financial fears and doubts, which may contribute to cognitive decline.
Second, having an extra child has a causal relationship to women’s lower labor market participation, fewer working hours, and lower income. In turn, participation in the workforce—as compared to retirement—positively affects cognitive performance among men and women.
Third, having children reduces the risk of social isolation among the elderly and is a major risk factor for cognitive impairment and dementia, and often raises the level of social interaction and support, which can be protective against cognitive decline at older ages.
Finally, having children can be stressful, affect health-risk behaviors, and negatively affect the cognitive development of adults. Parents who have more children can experience more stress, have less time to relax and invest in fun, cognitively stimulating activities. This can mean that the parent is deprived of sleep.
“The negative impact of having three or more children on cognitive performance is not insignificant, it is equivalent to 6.2 years of old age,” Bonsang noted. She suggests that the decline in the proportion of Europeans with three or more children may have positive effects on the cognitive health of older adults.
“Given the size of the effect, future studies of later cognition should also examine fertility as a predictor along with more commonly researched predictors, such as education, occupational experiences, physical exercise, and mental and physical health,” Skirbekk noted.
In addition, future studies should address the potential effects of not having children or having one child on cognition later in life. We also need more information about the types of interactions, supports, and conflicts that occur between parents and children, which may influence cognitive outcomes.”
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“Does childbearing affect cognitive health in later life? Evidence from a mechanistic-variable approach” by Eric Bonsang et al. demography
Does childbearing affect cognitive health in later life? Evidence of the Automated Variable Approach
Cognitive decline is a widespread concern as the population ages. However, population aging is partly driven by declining fertility, and family size may affect cognitive performance later in life. Previous studies have shown that a fertility history is associated with a perception of later life, but whether the relationship is causal remains unclear.
We use an effective covariate approach and data from the Europe Health, Aging and Retirement Survey to examine whether having three or more children versus two children affects cognition later in life.
Parents often prefer to have at least one son and daughter. We thus exploit the sexual makeup of the first two children as a source of external variance in the probability of having three or more children.
The results indicate that having three or more children versus two children has a negative effect on cognition later in life. This effect is strongest in Northern Europe, probably because higher fertility reduces financial resources but does not improve social resources in this region.
Future studies should address the potential effects of not having children or having one child on later life cognition and exploring the mechanisms of its mediation.