It’s not surprising that being a single parent is a tough road, but new Canadian research shows that single fathers fare particularly badly when it comes to health and longevity.
In general, men don't live as long as women, and they tend to enter single parenthood at an older age. But the study, by the Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences (ICES), found that factors such as loneliness and higher risk behaviours also contribute to a mortality rate among single fathers that’s three times as high as for single mothers and partnered fathers.
“What is particularly striking about our study findings is the social isolation factor; single fathers are less likely to have relationships and connections within and between social networks that would work to enhance their health, productivity and well-being,” says Maria Chiu, lead author and scientist at ICES and assistant professor at the University of Toronto.
The study, published on The Lancet Public Health site, tracked health data from 871 single fathers, 4,590 single mothers, 16,341 partnered fathers and 18,688 partnered mothers for an average of 11 years, beginning in 2001.
While divorce rates peaked in the 1980s, they have been trending higher of late. Add to that the increasing number of parents who choose to have children on their own and you have a rising cohort of single parents, with single fathers outpacing mothers in growth. According to Statistics Canada, about 333,000 households in Canada—or about 3.5 percent—were headed by single fathers. And while previous research has shown that single parenthood can adversely affect health, there’s been little research on single fathers in particular.
The study found that single fathers were more likely to have chronic conditions such as cancer and cardiovascular disease. They also tended to eat less fruits and vegetables, and binge-drink more frequently than the other groups. However, the researchers admit those factors likely don’t tell the the whole story about the gap in mortality rates. For instance, while single fathers binge drank at least once a month far more frequently than single mothers (30.2 percent compared with 10.5 precent), they weren’t that far ahead of partnered fathers (30.2 percent compared with 23.3 percent). And single fathers were actually the most physically active of all the groups.
Part of the reason for the increased mortality rate may be explained by research showing that single fathers are much less likely to have a strong social network around them for support. “Having fewer trusted companions to rely on and confide in could have a substantial effect on the risk of mortality in single fathers,” the study says.
The researchers note that loneliness has been associated with disrupted sleep patterns, higher stress, weaker immune systems and increased cognitive decline and heart disease, but they say further research is needed to establish a causal relationship between loneliness and premature mortality.
Another potential factor? Because single parents are more often women, single men may face real or perceived barriers to seeking and receiving supports, such as financial assistance and support groups. The study also found the death of a spouse to be a more common entry into single parenthood for men than women, which could add grief and additional stress to their experience.
"Our research highlights single fathers as a high-risk group requiring close monitoring and management of lifestyle factors," says Chiu. "Detailed social histories would allow physicians to learn more about the social and life circumstances of this high-risk group and to give advice on behavioural and lifestyle changes."