Parents of at least one boy show faster cognitive decline

Does the sex of a child influence the health of its parents? In any case, research suggests an association between the number of sons and long-term maternal health outcomes, including dementia. A team of neurologists from Columbia University looked into the question: they conducted a longitudinal study involving thousands of American parents in order to assess the impact of children on the speed at which the cognitive abilities of their parents decrease with age. Their results, published in the Journal of Psychiatric Researchsuggest that having at least one son accelerates cognitive decline, especially dementia.

Parents perform worse on memory and cognition tests

No, having a child is not “only” happiness. It is also a great source of stress, anxiety and fatigue for parents. So much so that our offspring could even have an impact on the aging of our brains. To find out to what extent children can influence the cognitive abilities of their parents, researchers studied a cohort of 13,222 adults aged 50 and over, who had enrolled in the study “Health and Retirement Study” of the University of Michigan (a longitudinal study initiated in 1992).

The objective was to study the relationship between having at least one son and the rate of cognitive decline, taking into account the sociodemographic and health characteristics of each participant throughout the study. In addition, the researchers took into account all family patterns (whether the children were biological, adopted or the family was blended). It was also a question of verifying whether this relationship varied according to the sex of the parents and whether the magnitude of the relationship increased with each additional son.

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Number of births by gender in metropolitan France, from 2012 to 2021. Credits: Insee/INED

All participants had at least one child; 82.3% of them had at least one son. Their cognitive abilities were assessed every two years for 18 years, by summing the scores obtained on the immediate and delayed recall tests of ten names, a test of serial subtractions and a counting down test. These tests were intended to assess global cognition, Memory and the ability to concentrate.

The results showed that parents with at least one son had a faster rate of cognitive decline than parents with only daughters.

Fathers and mothers affected equally

Cognitive tests have also shown that the decline in cognitive abilities was even more rapid in parents with several sons. Fathers and mothers were apparently affected in the same way. ” The results support the theory that having sons could have a long-term negative effect on parental cognition. “, conclude the researchers.

According to the team, these findings are also consistent with findings from animal studies, which have shown an association between male offspring and accelerated maternal aging. ” These findings were explained by higher demands on maternal resources during pregnancy with male offspring, as well as greater energy investment after birth. “, they explain.

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No biological factor could be highlighted here, so how can this phenomenon be explained? The researchers assume that the answer lies in the social behavior of boys: boys are generally encouraged to be more active, while girls are encouraged to exhibit positive affect and be more social. As a result, girls are more likely to care for their aging parents and provide them with emotional support – which helps keep them healthy.

Three or more children have a negative effect on cognition

Many other factors influence the loss of cognitive abilities during aging: foodlifestyle, physical and intellectual activities, environmental factors, etc. And while a child’s gender does play a role in parents’ mental health, it also depends on how the child is raised. So don’t worry, your sons are not necessarily devoid of any form of empathy…

Note that another study published earlier this year in the review Demography, suggested that the number of children could also influence cognitive losses. The results indicated that having three or more children compared to two had a negative effect on cognition at the end of life. ” This effect is strongest in Northern Europe, possibly because higher fertility decreases financial resources but does not improve social resources in this region. “, specified the authors of the study.

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Indeed, having an extra child often entails considerable costs, which can lead to worries and financial uncertainties, which could contribute to cognitive deterioration. In addition, in large families, one of the parents – most often the mother – generally makes the choice to stop working, which further influences her cognitive functioning. But at the same time, having multiple children decreases the risk of social isolation in older people, which is a key risk factor for cognitive impairment and dementia.

Future studies should address the potential effects of childlessness or having only one child on cognition at the end of life and explore mediating mechanisms. ” Understanding the factors that contribute to optimal cognition at the end of life is essential to ensure successful aging at the individual and societal level, especially in Europe, where family sizes have decreased and populations are aging rapidly. », declared Vegard Skirbekkprofessor of population and family health at Columbia’s Mailman School.

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