A few months ago some researchers from Denmark published a study demonstrating that childlessness in women is associated with a four-fold increased rate of death and a two-fold increased rate of death in men. The study looked at women who were in the Danish IVF Register from January 1, 1994 until December 31, 2008. They followed birth rates, adoption, and death in this group and looked at the numbers. For women in this group who became parents of a biological child, the risk of death was one fourth (0.25) of the risk for death in women who remained childless. For women in this group who became adoptive parents, the risk of death was two thirds (0.67) of the risk for death in women who remained childless. For men in this group the numbers were about half for men who became fathers of either a biological (0.51) or an adopted child (0.55). The study by Agerbo, Mortensen and Munk-Olsen was published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, accepted October 2012.
So what does this mean? Men and especially women who became parents had a significantly decreased risk of death during the study. This study shows a very interesting correlation but says nothing about cause. Everyone in the study had infertility, but perhaps the people who did not conceive had more severe forms of infertility that may be associated with greater health risks? This does not explain the reduced death rates in adoptive parents. However, perhaps adoptive parents tended to be healthier and wealthier – adoptive parents in Denmark must be evaluated by the National Adoption Board. Or perhaps children bring something so special to our lives that the experience of parenting somehow brings us greater longevity?
The answer remains a mystery, but the study raises some very provocative questions. As a physician who cares for hundreds of people struggling with infertility every year, I have my own theories. While infertility can be devastating, it can also be an opportunity for me to motivate my patients to become healthier: to quit smoking, stop drinking, get their vaccines, take their vitamins, lose the excess weight. People with access to modern fertility therapy usually have an excellent prognosis for success. I know many of my patients have succeeded in becoming healthier and conceived along the way. I know that many of them continue these new, healthy habits after they leave me, and once they have a family. I know that these healthier habits not only helped them to conceive but will help them live longer lives.