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06-04-2024

Fatherhood takes a toll on heart health

Heart disease is the leading cause of death among men, and a new study led by Northwestern University and the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago suggests that fatherhood may increase this risk. 

“Emerging literature links fatherhood to men’s health, but lacks comprehensive assessment of health outcomes, especially among multi-ethnic populations,” wrote the study authors.

“Our objective was to evaluate the associations of fatherhood (age at onset and status) with cardiovascular health (CVH) scores, incident cardiovascular disease (CVD), CVD death and all-cause mortality, examining differences by race/ethnicity.”

Fatherhood and heart health

The analysis, involving 2,814 men aged 45 to 84, revealed that fathers had worse cardiovascular health compared to nonfathers. The assessment was based on diet, physical activity, smoking habits, weight, blood pressure, and blood levels of lipids and glucose.

“The changes in heart health we found suggest that the added responsibility of childcare and the stress of transitioning to fatherhood may make it difficult for men to maintain a healthy lifestyle, such as a healthy diet and exercise,” said corresponding author John James Parker, an internist, pediatrician, and assistant professor of pediatrics and general internal medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.

Paradoxical finding on death rates

The study revealed that despite worse heart health, fathers had lower death rates than nonfathers. This paradoxical finding might be due to stronger social support systems for fathers, which have been linked to lower mortality rates. 

“Fathers may also be more likely to have someone as their future caretaker (i.e., their children) to help them attend medical appointments and manage medications and treatments as they get older,” Parker explained.

Additionally, the experts found that fathers had lower rates of depressive symptoms compared to nonfathers, which could also contribute to their lower death rates. 

Diverse study population 

The research included men who identified as Black, Chinese, Hispanic, or White, and found that Black fathers had lower death rates compared to Black nonfathers. 

“Fatherhood may be protective for Black men,” Parker noted. “Maybe becoming a father helps promote a healthy lifestyle for Black men. Studying this association further could have important public health implications.”

The study is significant because it included a racially and ethnically diverse population, a feature often missing in previous research on fatherhood and heart health. 

The team utilized data from the Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis (MESA) and also examined how the age at which men become fathers influences heart health and disease outcomes. 

Young fathers and heart health

An important finding was that men who became fathers at a younger age (25 years and younger), particularly Black and Hispanic men, had worse heart health and higher death rates, indicating a need for focused public health attention.

“If you’re under 25, you may be less financially stable, your brain may be less mature, and, especially for racial and ethnic minorities, you may have lower-paying jobs with fewer benefits and limited leave policies,” Parker explained. 

“All of this can make it harder to focus on your health. There are a lot of public health interventions for young mothers, but no one has ever really looked at young fathers in this way.”

Health implications for fathers

Recognizing the health implications for fathers is crucial. “A lot of times we focus on the health of mothers and children, and we don’t even think of fathers, but their health has a major influence on their family,” noted Parker.

Interestingly, the study found higher smoking rates among fathers, which contrasts with other studies suggesting that many fathers quit smoking after having children. 

Parker suggested that older fathers might resume smoking later due to stress. “Either way, we should look at what’s happening with smoking rates because smoking is a leading cause of preventative death and if a father is smoking it will influence their families as well.”

Overall, the study, published in the journal AJPM Focus, underscores the need for more research and public health interventions targeted at fathers, particularly young and minority fathers, to improve their cardiovascular health and, consequently, the health of their families.

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