A new study from Harvard highlights single motherhood — parenting without a marital partner. The research linked poorer health in older age to a woman's experience of parenting alone at some point during her life. Having analyzed data from 15 countries, the researchers say the risks may be greatest for solo mothers in England, Denmark, Sweden, and the United States, yet the negative effects were not consistent and Hispanic women in the U.S. fared better.

“Lone motherhood is on the rise in many countries,” stated the study's authors, noting how prior research shows a relationship between solitary mothering and poor well-being, including “adverse cardiovascular risk, poor mental health, and increased mortality.” For the current study, the researchers investigated whether this higher risk of poor health at a later age varied by country. So they explored data from 25,125 women participants, all over the age of 50, in the U.S., England, and 13 European countries.

As expected, the researchers discovered both similarities and differences across cultures. In the U.S., a third of all mothers now older than 50 had experienced single motherhood at some point in their life. By comparison, 10 percent of the participants in Southern Europe, 22 percent in England, and 38 percent in Scandinavia shared a similar life journey.

Partners & Family Culture

Notably, when the researchers excluded unmarried women with partners, single motherhood decreased by less than four percentage points in England and Europe, yet in Scandinavia, it decreased by 11 percentage points. (This information was not available for the U.S. participants) Interestingly, the researchers discovered European women who had a partner “during spells of single motherhood” were in better health than other single mothers, but worse health than married mothers.

Compared to the consistently married mothers, women who had experienced some period of single motherhood had lower income and lower wealth, and they also were less likely to be married when they grew older. (This was true across all regions.) Single motherhood did not match with education level in any region other than England and the U.S. In both countries, single mothers were more likely to have a primary education or lower. Divorce was the most common reason for single motherhood in all countries.

Analysis of all the data revealed "lifetime history of single motherhood was associated with increased risk of later-life disability and poor health in the U.S., the U.K., and Scandinavia, but not in continental Western, Eastern or Southern Europe," wrote the authors.

Women who became single mothers before the age of 20, those who parented alone for eight years or longer, and those who had two or more children were at particular risk of disability and worse health in later life. Generally, the longer a woman parented alone, the poorer her health. Yet, exceptions exist.

“In Southern Europe, a region emphasizing family solidarity, single motherhood is not associated with increased health risks,” wrote the authors in their conclusion. “In the [U.S.], where Hispanics tend to have more family support than non-Hispanic whites, Hispanic single mothers did not have increased risks.”

Source: Berkman LF, Zheng Y, Glymour MM, et al. Mothering alone: cross-national comparisons of later-life disability and health among women who were single mothers. Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health. 2015.