Single moms, including those who later become single, between the ages of 16 and 49 have a greater risk for poorer health later in life, according to a new study published online in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health.
The risks appear to be highest for single mothers in England, the U.S., Denmark and Sweden.
For the study, the researchers wanted to know whether moms who started off single or became single before the age of 50 were at greater risk for poorer health, and whether going it alone was ultimately worse in countries with relatively weak “social [support] safety nets.”
Single motherhood was classified as having a child still under the age of 18 and not being married rather than living with a partner.
The findings indicated that any period of single motherhood was linked to a greater risk of some level of physical disability and poor health in later life compared to dual parenthood.
“The findings add to the growing recognition that single motherhood may have long term health effects on mothers. As lone motherhood is on the rise in many countries, policies addressing health disadvantages of lone mothers may be essential to improving women’s health and reducing disparities,” write the researchers.
The results are based on the responses of more than 25,000 women aged 50 and over to questions about childbearing and marital status. They reported on any limitations on their capacity for routine daily activities (ADL), such as personal hygiene and getting dressed, and instrumental daily activities (IADL), such as driving and shopping, and also rated their own health.
All the women had taken part in one of three biennial nationally representative surveys: the Health and Retirement Study (HRS) in the US; the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing (ELSA in England; or the Survey of Health, Ageing and Retirement in Europe (SHARE).
Thirteen of the 21 countries represented by SHARE (Denmark, Sweden, Austria, France, Germany, Switzerland, Belgium, The Netherlands, Italy, Spain, Greece, Poland, Czech Republic) had collected relevant data.
One in three of the U.S. moms surveyed had been a single mother before the age of 50, compared with around one in five (22 percent) in England and Western European countries, around four out of 10 (38 percent) in Denmark and Sweden, and one in 10 in Southern Europe.
In general, single moms in every country studied were typically younger, less well off, and less likely to be married than women who had stayed married throughout their parenthood. In the U.S. and England, single mothers also tended to be less well educated.
The link between single motherhood and poor health was stronger for those in England, the U.S., Denmark, and Sweden. Single motherhood was less consistently associated with health in Western, Eastern, and Southern European countries.
Also, women who became single moms before the age of 20, or as the result of divorce, or who parented alone for eight or more years, or who had two or more children, were at particular risk of disability and poor health in later life.
The findings may reflect “selection and causation in cycles of disadvantage,” said researchers. In other words, poverty may increase the risk of single motherhood, perhaps indicating earlier health disadvantages. And single parenting may hinder a woman’s ability to get qualifications, have a career, and earn enough money, which may itself lead to poorer health.
Similarly, social support may partially explain the link between single motherhood and health, suggest the researchers, noting that in Southern European countries, which have a strong family culture, single motherhood was not linked to increased health risks.