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Bigger families may negatively affect consumers' cognitive function in later life, study finds

Having more kids may affect both cognition and longevity

Big family at beach
Photo (c) Stephen Simpson - Getty Images
A new study conducted by researchers from Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health explored how consumers’ family size may affect their cognitive function in later life. According to the findings, having three or more kids can have a negative impact on cognition and longevity when compared to having two children. 

“Understanding the factors that contribute to optimal late-life cognition is essential for ensuring successful aging at the individual and societal levels – particularly in Europe, where family sizes have shrunk and populations are aging rapidly,” said researcher Vegard Skirbekk, Ph.D. 

“For individuals, late-life cognitive health is essential for maintaining independence and being socially active and productive in late life,” said researcher Eric Bonsang, Ph.D. “For societies, ensuring the cognitive health of the older population is essential for extending work lives and reducing health care costs and care needs.” 

Having more kids may affect long-term brain health

For the study, the researchers analyzed responses to the Survey of Health, Aging, and Retirement in Europe (SHARE). Responses came from consumers living in 20 regions across Europe, and they were all at least 65 years old with a minimum of two children. 

The researchers identified a link between having more kids and having poor cognition in later life, which held up for both men and women. The team identified three major ways that having more than three kids can negatively affect cognitive function:

  • The more kids that consumers have, the greater their financial burden. Over time, this can lower the standard of living and increase stress, which can lead to poor cognition. 

  • Having to provide for more family members often means that consumers need to work later in life. Being involved in the labor market later than anticipated can also negatively affect cognitive health. 

  • Parents with more than three kids may have higher stress levels, which affects how they spend their free time. They have less time to do things that are relaxing or that can improve their cognitive health, which can have negative long-term effects. 

“The negative effect of having three or more children on cognitive function is not negligible, it is equivalent to 6.2 years of aging,” said Dr. Bonsang. 

On a positive note, the researchers learned that having more kids can mitigate some of the cognitive risks related to social isolation. When consumers have more kids, they’re likely to be more socially engaged.

Based on these findings, the researchers hope more work is done in this area to better understand how the size of consumers’ families can impact their long-term cognitive function. 

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

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