Family size may influence cognitive functioning

A new study from Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, Robert Butler Columbia Aging Center and Université Paris-Dauphine – PSL, found that having three or more children versus two has a negative effect on cognition in the end. of life. The results further indicated that this effect was strongest in Northern Europe, where higher fertility decreases financial resources but does not improve social resources in this region. He is the first to study the causal effect of high fertility on cognition at the end of life.

So far, fertility has not received much attention as a potential predictor of late-life cognition compared to other factors, such as education or occupation. The results are published in the journal Demography.

“Understanding the factors that contribute to optimal cognition at the end of life is essential to ensure successful aging at individual and societal levels, especially in Europe, where family sizes have declined and populations are aging rapidly,” said Vegard Skirbekk. , PhD, professor of population. and family health at Columbia Mailman School. “For individuals, end-of-life cognitive health is critical to maintaining independence and being socially active and productive in late life. For societies, ensuring the cognitive health of the older population is critical to prolonging working life and reducing health care costs and needs,” said Eric Bonsang, PhD, professor of economics at Université Paris-Dauphine – PSL.

Researchers analyzed data from the Survey of Health, Aging and Retirement in Europe (SHARE) to examine the extent to which having three or more children versus two children causally affects cognition in end of life. SHARE surveys representative samples of older populations in 20 European countries and Israel, including Austria, Belgium, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Slovenia and Spain, Sweden and Switzerland. Participants were aged 65 or older and had at least two biological children.

Based on advanced econometric methods capable of unraveling the causality of simple associations, evidence suggests that having three or more children versus two children is linked to poorer cognition in later life. They also found that this effect is similar for men and women.

Fertility can affect cognition at the end of life via several pathways. First, having an extra child often entails considerable financial costs, reduces family income and increases the likelihood of falling below the poverty line, thus lowering the standard of living of all family members and potentially causing worry and hardship. financial uncertainties, which could contribute to cognitive deterioration.

Second, having an extra child is causally linked to women’s lower labor force participation, fewer hours worked, and lower earnings. In turn, participation in the labor market – relative to retirement – ​​positively affects the cognitive functioning of both men and women.

Third, having children decreases the risk of social isolation in older people, which is a key risk factor for cognitive impairment and dementia, and often increases the level of social interaction and support, which may protect against cognitive decline in later life.

Finally, having children can be stressful, affect health risk behaviors and impair cognitive development in adults. Parents with more children may experience more stress, have less time to relax, and engage in cognitively stimulating leisure activities. This may involve sleep deprivation for the parent.

“The negative effect of having three or more children on cognitive functioning is not negligible, equivalent to 6.2 years of aging,” Bonsang noted. This suggests that the decrease in the proportion

of Europeans with three or more children may have positive implications for the cognitive health of the elderly population.

“Given the magnitude of the effect, future studies of end-of-life cognition should also examine fertility as a prognosticator alongside more commonly researched predictors, such as education, work experiences, exercise and mental and physical health,” observed Skirbekk. “In addition, future studies should address the potential effects of childlessness or having a child on late-life cognition. We also need more information about the types of interactions, supports and conflicts that occur between parents and children, which can influence cognitive outcomes.

The study was supported by the Health Chair, a joint initiative of PSL, Paris-Dauphine University, ENSAE, MGEN and ISTYA under the aegis of the Risk Foundation (FDR).

Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health

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