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single motherhood and health in later life

Publishing in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health, researchers have attempted to examine an association between being a single mother and possible poor health later in life. They report that single mothers were at risk of poorer health, but that this risk varied between countries. Roundup comments accompanied this analysis.


Title, Date of Publication & Journal

‘Mothering alone: cross-national comparisons of later-life disability and health among women who were single mothers’ by Lisa F Berkman et al. will be published in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health at 23:30 UK time on Thursday 14 May 2015.


Study’s main claims – and are they supported by the data

The paper provides evidence for an association between being a single (non-married) mother at some point between the ages of 16 and 49 and poorer health in later life (aged 50+). The fact that increased duration of single motherhood was associated with an increasingly higher risk of poor health adds some weight to this evidence.

It also provides evidence that this association may be present in some countries / regions (USA, England, Scandinavia) but not others (particularly Southern and Eastern European countries).

It does not claim to establish what the mechanism(s) for this association are, although it does give some possible explanations, such as poverty and social disadvantage.




The data come from national surveys carried out in the different countries / regions and should therefore be reasonably representative.


The main limitations are:

  • In some countries, no information was collected on partners; thus, in the analysis mothers who were unmarried were compared to those who were married, so mothers who lived with their partners (in some cases the fathers of the children) but were not married would be counted as single. (However, the authors did do an analysis comparing single mothers to mothers with either a spouse or non-marital partners for those countries where the information was available and found that it made very little difference to the results).
  • The health outcomes are all self-reported outcomes; these are potentially less reliable measures of health.  Study participants were asked things like whether they had “difficulty because of physical, mental, emotional or memory problems” – as the questions were quite vague, and answers were not based on official diagnoses, this is another limitation.

The authors clearly acknowledge these limitations in the paper.


Before The Headlines is a service provided to the SMC by volunteer statisticians: members of the Royal Statistical Society (RSS), Statisticians in the Pharmaceutical Industry (PSI) and experienced statisticians in academia and research.  A list of contributors, including affiliations, is available here.

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