The Younger Women at the Highest Risk for Health Problems Later in Life


The new study looks at the prevalence of single motherhood in the U.S. and Europe. (Photo: Getty Images)

Single mothers may face a higher risk of health problems later in life, but the risk differs depending on the part of the world they live in, according to a new study in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health.

Previous research has shown that single mothers are more likely to develop physical and mental health issues later in life, which typically stems from depression. However, researchers from the United States, London, Germany, and China wanted to find out if this risk applied evenly across different regions of the world.

They gathered data from 25,000 women 50 or older who lived in the United States or Europe. They were asked about their marital status and children, as well as any limitations that may hinder productivity in their everyday lives (from taking care of personal hygiene to driving a car). They were also asked to rate their own health.

In Denmark and Sweden, 38 percent of the mothers were a single parent before the age of 50, while in the U.S., 33 percent of mothers were a single parent before the age of 50. Meanwhile, in England, 22 percent of mothers were a single parent before the age of 50, and in southern European countries, 10 percent of mothers were a single parent before the age of 50.

Overall, there was still a link between single motherhood and a higher rate of health problems later in life, compared with married mothers. In fact, the women who were at the highest risk either became single parents before turning 20, were single parents for more than eight years, or were single parents to two or more children.

But not all countries were alike. The association between single motherhood and poor health was much weaker in southern European countries. Researchers speculated that the strong social support they received from family could be the key.

Lack of money — likely from lack of education and career opportunities — was the main factor in greater health risks, the researchers found.

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However, the study only shows an association. “We can never know for sure whether single motherhood causes poorer health,” Bella DePaulo, PhD, author of Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After, tells Yahoo Health. “Instead, the real issue may be poverty or earlier health or (un)employment, or any number of other possibilities. Studies like this can try to control for those factors statistically, but they can never rule them out definitively.”

The findings of the study suggest financial insecurity is the main factor in poorer health later in life for single mothers, DePaulo explains to Yahoo Health. However, “statistical analyses suggest that in the U.S., if single mothers had the same income and wealth as married mothers, they would have the same or almost the same levels of good health. Meanwhile, income and wealth made some difference in England and Scandinavia, too,” she says. “So again, is it single motherhood or economic well-being that really matters in determining health? And what about access to affordable health care?”

The study also did not address the issue of stigma with single parenthood. “Single parenting is still stigmatized, certainly in the U.S., and that can matter,” DePaulo says.

But weaker association between health risks and single motherhood in southern European countries shows the importance of strong family ties, DePaulo adds. She suggests a policy change here in the U.S. that could bring the benefit here: “We can do that in our policies by extending the Family and Medical Leave Act to include people other than a spouse,” she says. “That way, when a single mother becomes ill, other people in her life who are in eligible workplaces can take time off under the Act to help her.”

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