Health gap between older and younger fathers increasing over time

Young fathers had lower cognitive ability in childhood, and this in part explains their poorer health in midlife.
Father and daughter 747 560
Father and daughter

Fathers who postpone fatherhood until they are 35 or older are more likely to report better health, with the health gap between older and younger fathers growing in recent decades, new research from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) has found.

The research, published in SSM - Population Health journal, compared two groups of fathers, one born in 1958 and one born 1970, to investigate the effect of the timing of the birth of their first child on their reported health in middle-age (at the age of 41 or 42). The research also investigated the influence of childhood characteristics on the fathers mid-life health, such as cognitive ability at age 10 and 11, their birth weight, and the education and employment levels of their parents.

The study found that men who had their first child before the age of 20 reported the poorest middle-age health, followed by men who had their first child when they were 20–24 years old (relative to 25 and 29 year-old first-time fathers).

Older fathers born in 1970 had the best midlife health of all the age-groups groups analysed, with a lower likelihood of being obese and a smoker. By comparison, the 1958 group did not show similar differences in the reported health of older fathers, suggesting that older father’s superior health, relative to younger fathers, is a trend that has developed in recent decades.

A further analysis of the influence of the childhood characteristics on father’s health showed that, above all else, cognitive ability — an individual’s capacity to perform the various mental activities closely associated with learning — has the strongest association with fatherhood age and health.

Greater cognitive ability in childhood increased the health advantages for older first time fathers, while lower cognitive ability in childhood was associated with relatively poorer middle-age health for first time fathers, increasing the health gap between younger and older fathers.

The authors note there may be several explanations why cognitive ability showed the strongest influence on father’s health. They write “young men with lower cognitive abilities may choose earlier family formation if investing in education and career building appear less attractive… cognitive ability may also influence the likelihood of unintentional pregnancies.”

The authors add that “young fathers experience a disadvantage that may warrant policy interventions… For example, young fathers and their children could benefit from support provided by professionals working in social and health care.”

Professor Mikko Myrskylä, Professorial Research Fellow in the Department of Social Policy at LSE, said: “Fathers who have children at a young age tend to have worse health outcomes than older fathers. It is not known whether this is due to early fatherhood being so stressful, or whether the association arises because those who have children at young age have other risk factors that influence their health, independently of fatherhood.

"Our results suggest that an important part, more than a third, of the association between young fatherhood and poor health is due to other risk factors, and early fatherhood itself may be less damaging for health than previously thought.”

Dr. Elina Einiö of the University of Helsinki and lead researcher, said: “It is always difficult to know, based on observational studies whether young fatherhood really is bad for men’s health, or whether young fathers were different from other men already before having the first child. Our analyses show that young fathers had lower cognitive ability in childhood, and this in part explains their poorer health in midlife. It does not explain it all, however.”

Behind the article

Is the relationship between men's age at first birth and midlife health changing? Evidence from two British cohorts by Elina Einiö, Alice Goisis, and Mikko Myrskylä was published in Population Health in August 2019.