Does childbearing really impact cognitive health later in life?

by mcardinal

Lauren Dempsey, MS in Biomedicine and Law, RN, FISM News 


Becoming a parent changes everything, including your brain. New research published in the journal Demography analyzed data that suggests fertility may be a predictor for cognitive health later in life. The research found that childbearing and having more children correlated with having poor cognitive health with advanced age. 

The researchers analyzed data from the Survey of Health, Aging and Retirement in 20 different countries in Europe as well as Israel (SHARE) to examine how having three or more children, when compared to having two children, causally affects late-life cognition. The survey participants were 65 years or older and had at least two biological children. According to Dr. Vegard Skirbekk, professor of population and family health at Columbia Mailman School, understanding the possible connection is important. “Understanding the factors that contribute to optimal late-life cognition is essential for ensuring successful aging at the individual and societal levels — particularly in Europe, where family sizes have shrunk and populations are aging rapidly.”

Analysis of the data from the surveys revealed that having more children is related to decreased late-life cognition, and the impact of a bigger family is consistent in both men and women. The evidence suggests that there are many contributing factors to cognitive health. The researchers found that financial costs related to having children decreased the standard of living for all family members, resulting in financial insecurity and stress. The authors also point out that having children has a negative impact on the ability of women to join the workforce, creating lower earnings, and suggest that women and men who work outside of the home have better long-term cognitive health.

Further, the researchers state that having more children decreases the risk of social isolation later in life, which is important in maintaining mental health and independence. Lastly, the analysis suggests raising children is stressful, which in turn adversely impacts the health of parents and adult cognitive development. More children results in more stress and, according to the authors, is “equivalent to about 6.2 years of aging.”

Dr. Eric Bonsang, professor of economics at the Université Paris-Dauphine, has said that family sizes in Europe are getting smaller, which may have a positive impact on the population as they age. The authors of the data analysis seem to imply that having less children is better for health as well as the economy, but the authors do concede that more research needs to be done to better evaluate the connection.

It is important to note, however, that other studies have shown that cognitive health is affected by many different factors such as health, social interaction, depression, as well as socioeconomics, which seems to be “an important driver of the association between high parity [number of pregnancies brought to term] and poorer cognitive function.” 

Studies have also shown that hormones can directly impact a woman’s brain during pregnancy and after birth and can have a similar effect on new fathers. Changes in gray matter, the amygdala, and the hormone oxytocin positively affect the brains of new parents. These changes help parents to form attachments and bond with their new baby, feeling a sense of love and protection, and research has shown these changes last for at least two years post-pregnancy. New fathers have similar brain changes when they are involved in child rearing, resulting in a socio-cognitive circuit in fathers that drives nurturing behaviors. 

Very few studies have been conducted on the impact of childbearing and long-term cognitive status, but it seems there are many factors at play that can affect a person’s mental and physical wellbeing throughout their lifetime.