Skip to main content

"Family life courses, intergenerational exchanges and later life health"

Final Report Summary - FAMHEALTH (Family life courses, intergenerational exchanges and later life health)

This research programme studied how individuals' family courses - the number and timing of children they have and their partnership history - are associated with physical and mental health in later life. Some types of family life course, for example having children at a young age, having children close together or having a large family - might lead to stresses, costs and disadvantages which have a negative effect later on. The extent to which the state provides support for families, and attitudes to, for example, teenage mothers, might also modify the effect of these pathways. Results of the programme showed that in general men and women who had no or only one child, or among parents those who had a child when they themselves were young, had poorer physical and mental health later life life. However these effects did vary, for example they were less evident in some former Eastern bloc countries where in the past the state prioritised families in the allocation of housing and provided nurseries and other supports for families.
The programme also examined partnership histories and how they were related to health behaviours, physical health at older ages and risks of death. Results showed the unmarried generally had unhealthier lifestyles and that the health gap between the unmarried, especially people who had never-married, and married people is widening. For example in Norway in 2005-2008 the never-married lagged about 30 years behind the married in terms of risk of death in a year. Changes in the educational distribution of groups by marital status could not explain this widening gap, but a clue may be we also found that the never-married were much less likely to be taking certain types of preventive medication.
The research programme also examined inter-generational connections and help and contact between older parents and adult children. This showed that parents' were at more risk of depression if they did not see their children regularly and in much of Europe older widows were happier if they lived with a child than alone. However this was not the case in Northern European countries, where autonomy is more valued. Here parents suffered a decline in quality of life if they had a returning 'boomerang' child. The lives of older parents and adult children are 'linked' in that events in the live of one generation affect those in the other. For example we found that older parents with a child who became unemployed suffered a decline in quality of life, and adult children whose parent had a health problem became lonelier. Helping one generation thus has benefits for family members in other generations.