by Sanna Read and Emily Grundy

Parenthood may have long-lasting consequences on how life shapes up. Family building not only affects educational pathways, career opportunities and financial position, but also opens and closes avenues to contacts, activities and social support. Family size and the age when people become parents may be critical. Through various positive and negative aspects and also direct physiological effects on women, parenthood may influence how healthy we stay when we age. Can it also influence mental abilities, such as cognition?

Our recent paper Fertility history and cognition in later life addresses this question. Using data from the English Longitudinal Survey of Ageing (ELSA), we looked at the level and changes in cognition (memory and word fluency) over an 8-year period among women and men aged 50 or more at the start of the study. We assessed how cognition was associated with number of children (0, 1, 2, 3 or 4+ children), early parenthood (before age 20 for women and 23 for men) and late parenthood (after age 35 for women and 39 for men). Previous work on parenthood and cognition has mainly focused on women only and a narrow range of physiological effects, especially hormonal factors.  The novelty in our study was to include both men and women and widen the scope to consider the role of socio-economic position, health and social factors in the association.

Our key findings reveal that family building history has both negative and positive effects on cognition in later life. Large family size and early parenthood were associated with poorer cognitive functioning in both men and women, following a similar pattern as found previously for other health outcomes. Poorer cognitive functioning in these cases resulted from negative pathways between early parenting, larger family size and poorer socioeconomic position, which further affect health and social engagement in later life.

The benefits of parenting on cognition were also evident; parents had higher cognitive functioning than childless men and women. Moreover, those women who experienced their last birth after turning 35 also exhibited higher cognitive functioning in later life. Although some of these benefits were due to better socioeconomic position, health and social engagement, these background factors did not fully explain why parenthood and cognition was positively associated.

Future research could look more closely at possible selection into particular life trajectories. This is important as in the present study parenting was mostly associated with the level of cognition, but had only very little effect on the change of cognition in older age (the only effect was that childless women had a faster cognitive decline). Some associations between cognitive functioning and parenting histories may be already established earlier in life. Future studies should also investigate what aspect of child rearing are beneficial for cognitive functioning. For example, nurturance of others may promote self-esteem and self-efficacy, and social interaction and activities with children may be cognitively stimulating. This effect may be relevant even at post childrearing ages as a result of interacting with grandchildren for instance.

Further information

This study is part of the MODEM project. The work in the current paper was supported by awards from the UK Economic and Social Research Council and National Institute for Health Research (grant number: ES/L001896/1) and a European Research Council Advanced Grant to Emily Grundy (reference number: 324055).

About the authors

Dr Sanna Read is Assistant Professorial Research Fellow within the Personal Social Services Research Unit at the LSE.

Professor Emily Grundy is Professor of Demography within the Department of Social Policy at the LSE.