Single Fathers Experience 3 Times Greater Mortality Risk Than Other Parents

They were also 3 times more likely to suffer from cancer, and reported a greater rate of hypertension and cardiovascular disease.

Maria Chiu, PhD

Single fathers have a significantly greater mortality risk than single mothers and partnered parent groups, according to the first-ever comparative study of various parent populations.

In an analysis of 40,490 parents from the Canadian Community Health Survey, researchers identified 871 single fathers, compared to 4590 single mothers. Despite making up just 2.15% of the parent population, single fathers reported a mortality rate of 5.8 deaths per 1000 person-years—more than 3 times greater than that of single mothers (1.74 per 1000) and partnered fathers (1.94 per 1000).

Single fathers were also 3 times more likely to suffer from cancer (4.7%) than any other parent population, and also reported a greater rate of hypertension (16.7%) and cardiovascular disease (1.6%). Though their rate of smoking (35%) was higher than that of partnered mothers and fathers, they had a lesser rate of respiratory conditions than single mothers (13.2% versus 17.2%).

The researchers from several Toronto, Canada-based institutions sought out differences in health and mortality in parents of either gender living at home with or without a parental partner. Single parents were defined as individuals divorced, separated, widowed, single, never-married, and non-cohabitating. Lead researcher Maria Chiu, PhD, of the Mental Health and Addictions Program, Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences in Toronto, told MD Magazine that previous research has frequently focused on the larger population of single mothers.

Though the study sought to factor out sociodemographic and lifestyle influences on mortality, Chiu noted some critical factors were more frequent in single fathers. The population reported greater rates of monthly binge drinking (30.2%) and less consumption of daily fruits and vegetables (34.4%) and outpatient visitation (80.7%) than the other parenting groups.

The addition of these factors, along with a notably greater mean age (45.7 years, versus 40.6 in single mothers) created a non-controlled mortality risk that Chiu called “staggeringly high.”

Single fathers may also be more prone to emotional issues. The rate of widowed fathers in the population (12.4%) was nearly twice that of widowed single mothers (6.5%). They reported divorce or separation (72.4%) more frequently than single mothers (61.6%). Coupled with a reduced propensity to seek clinical care, Chiu suggested single fathers may be more likely to suffer from loneliness.

Single mothers are more likely to receive financial support and educational grants from services and programs, Chiu said, and previous studies have shown single fathers’ mental health is significantly worse.

“There might be social barriers to dads getting the help they need,” Chiu said.

Chiu called the analysis an important comparison, as single father populations are increasing in countries such as the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia.

Addressing what’s clear from analysis—sociodemographic and lifestyle issues—could be the first step in ensuring children don’t lose their fathers.

“Given the trend towards patient-centered care and a growing recognition of the effect of social isolation and loneliness on premature death, close monitoring of risk factors in single fathers could provide physicians with opportunities to better manage lifestyle and behavioural factors and intervene in a timely manner,” researchers wrote. “Further work is needed to understand the causes of the increased mortality in single fathers and initiatives that might help support and mitigate risk.”

The study, "Mortality in single fathers compared with single mothers and partnered parents: a population-based cohort study," was published online in The Lancet this month.

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