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Family life courses, intergenerational exchanges and later life health

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'Linked lives' and their impact on our health

The FAMHEALTH project has considerably advanced our understanding of the complex interactions between family situation and health over the life course.

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There is no denying the fact that the decision to start a family – and with whom we do so – has a strong impact on how we live our lives. Our close ones often influence and change us, and this can actually go as far as to affect our health. This is a process Prof. Emily Grundy, Director of the Institute for Social and Economic Research (ISER) at the University of Essex is very familiar with: Since she signed up for the FAMHEALTH project five years ago, she’s been studying the influence of family courses on health and well-being in late adulthood. Prof Grundy’s team used a range of large-scale data sets and applied advanced statistical methods to link important changes to health impacts. They undertook comparisons between siblings, countries and time periods, and they’ve had very important, and sometimes surprising, findings. “We knew that having a child at a young age, bringing up children on your own, having closely spaced births, a large family and events like divorce all involve stresses, especially if economic circumstances are also straitened. Even when children are grown up, they may bring worries as well as support,” she explains. “But this research allowed us to go much further. For example, we found that older parents experienced a decline in their quality of life if they had an adult child who became unemployed. Conversely, their quality of life improved if they had a child who got married.” Per FAMHEALTH results, disadvantages in childhood increase the chance of becoming a parent at an early age, and this tends – in western Europe at least – to be associated with worse health and less career advancements. In Eastern countries, however, this isn’t necessarily the case, which could be due to how former state socialist regimes used to encourage female employment and provide strong support for families with children. Interestingly, she adds, “Besides, lacking a child or partner was more associated with a greater risk of depression for older people in Eastern than in Western European countries. This is most likely a result of support from adult children now being much more important given the collapse of former state supports.” There were also some differences between Northern countries and the rest of Europe. “In Eastern and Southern Europe, older widows were happier if they lived with a child than if they lived alone, whereas in Northern Europe living with a child was associated with being less happy. Similarly, mid-life parents in the Nordic countries whose adult child returned home suffered a decrease in their quality of life, but his wasn’t the case in other European regions,” Prof. Grundy points out. Another important finding relating to health was that unmarried men – and in particular never-married men – in Norway were much less likely than married men to take medication aimed at reducing the risks of heart disease and stroke. According to Prof. Grundy, this might be one reason for their increasing risks of death from these causes compared with married men. All in all, Prof. Grundy hopes that FAMHEALTH findings will help policy makers recognise how increasingly ‘linked lives’ mean that something happening to parents can affect children, and vice versa. Besides, she hopes that project findings on cumulative stresses involved in raising children will result in greater support for families, in turn bringing long term benefits for health.


FAMHEALTH, family courses, health, childhood

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