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'Health risk' for single mothers

Published 15/05/2015

Single mothers in England are more likely to suffer poor health later on in life, research has found.
Single mothers in England are more likely to suffer poor health later on in life, research has found.

Single mothers in England were found to be more likely to suffer poor health later on in life in an international study of women over 50.

Researchers compared more than 25,000 women in England, the United States and 13 European countries, to see if single motherhood is most damaging in countries with relatively weak social safety nets, such as the US and England.

They found the risks were greatest for lone mothers in England, the US, Denmark and Sweden, suggesting social support was a big factor.

They pointed out that for example, in southern Europe, where family solidarity is emphasised, single motherhood was not associated with increased health risks.

This was also found to be the case amongst people of Hispanic heritage in the US, who tend to have more family support than non-Hispanic whites.

Women were defined as ever having been a single mother if in any year when they were aged 15 to 49 they had a child under the age of 18 years and were not married.

Women who had children with partners were still classed as being single, as researchers said that at the time it was much less common than today and details on partnerships were not available for all countries.

They found nearly a quarter (22%) of English participants said they had been a single mother at some point, while the figure was 38% in the Scandinavian countries, 33% in the US and just 10% in southern Europe.

They said that if they excluded women in England with partners the figure decreased by less than four percentage points, while in Scandinavia it went down by 11 percentage points.

Researchers said that in every region, women with past experiences of single motherhood were younger, had lower income and wealth, and were less likely to be married as older adults compared with consistently married mothers.

Divorce was the most common reason for single motherhood, and these women, women who became single mothers at young ages, longer duration of single motherhood, and single mothers with two or more children were said to be at particular risk of ill-health in later life.

The study was led by Harvard Centre for Population and Development Studies in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and is published in the British Medical Journal.

The authors said the "f indings add to the growing recognition that single motherhood may have long-term health effects on mothers".

"As lone motherhood is on the rise in many countries, policies addressing health disadvantages of lone mothers may be essential to improving women's health and reducing disparities," they added.

"Social support and family dynamics may further protect single mothers. In environments where social interactions are valued at a cultural level, we find reduced risks. Anti-poverty programmes may additionally moderate impacts of single parenting."

They added that access to contraception and policies that help single mothers balance work and children may also help.

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