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The Hidden Heart Health Toll of Fatherhood

New research suggests being a father may have a negative effect on men’s heart health later in life.

Becoming a father, especially before the age of 25, may result in worse heart health as a man ages, a new study has found — findings that are particularly significant given that heart disease is the leading cause of death among men.

The study, conducted by researchers at Northwestern University, looked at 2,814 men between the ages of 45 and 84, finding cardiovascular health in older age to be worse for fathers compared to nonfathers. Researchers found that outcomes were even worse for those who became fathers before the age of 25. It is the first multiethnic longitudinal study to analyze cardiovascular health outcomes of fathers in the United States.

“These results are significant because men’s health and life expectancy lags behind that of women,” study co-author Craig Garfield, M.D., MAPP, a professor of pediatrics at Northwestern University and a pediatrician at Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago, tells Healthnews. “In 1920, men’s life expectancy was only one year behind women’s. Today, it is six years behind, so understanding the social determinants that impact men’s health — like becoming a father — is important as we think about improving men’s health.”

The researchers rated participants’ heart health by analyzing their diet, physical activity, smoking habits, weight, blood pressure, and blood lipids and glucose levels. And while they found that fathers had worse heart health in older age compared to those who didn’t have children, they also discovered that fathers faced lower death rates.

The authors say the added stress of fatherhood may result in worse lifestyle habits, such as poor diet and less exercise, leading to worse heart health with age. But having children might also increase social connectedness, which has been linked to lower mortality rates, and increase the chances that someone has a caretaker to ensure they take medication and attend medical appointments as they age.

The study results also differed by race and ethnicity subgroups, with Black fathers having lower mortality rates compared to Black non-fathers after adjusting for age. The authors say that for Black men specifically, fatherhood may actually be protective.

“Overall, our results demonstrate that fatherhood is an important social determinant of health and the relationship of fatherhood with cardiovascular health may differ by age at fatherhood, and race/ethnicity,” Garfield says.

The study was published as a peer-reviewed preprint in the journal AJPM Focus earlier this month, and a more finalized version will be published soon.

While decades of research have been aimed at understanding the impact of becoming a mother on women’s health, Garfield says researchers are just beginning to understand the role that being a father plays in men’s health.

“Just like we might ask women about their motherhood status and its impact on their health, these findings call for including fatherhood status as part of men’s health,” he says. “Heart healthy interventions that focus on men during their transition into fatherhood may be particularly beneficial for fathers, their families, and their children.”


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