Harvard Women's Health Watch

Both work and parenting influence risk of early death

The health effects of balancing career and parenting have been studied a lot, but most of the attention has focused on a single period in the middle of a woman's life. Recently, researchers affiliated with Harvard University and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health decided to look at how sustaining that balancing act over decades affects a woman's risk of dying before age 75.

The team studied data on work histories, marriages, and parenting for more than 7,500 women in the U.S. Health and Retirement Study—an ongoing biennial survey of the health and lifestyles of thousands of women and men. They found that a woman's risk of dying between ages 55 and 75 varied substantially with her history of work, marriage, and childrearing. Married women who went back to work after staying at home with their children had the lowest death rate—around 5%—while single mothers who had never worked had the highest rate—12%. The death rate was just under 7% for nonworking married mothers, and slightly above 8% for single working mothers. The report appeared in the April 2015 issue of the American Journal of Public Health.

The researchers acknowledged that their analysis didn't take into account how many hours a week the women worked or their satisfaction with their home lives. But they did note that the women who lived the longest had the most family support and social connections—another reminder of the benefits of strong ties to family, friends, and colleagues.