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[DAD BODY, DAD HEART] Cardiovascular health worse for fathers in older age

Heart disease is the leading cause of death among men, and being a father may put men at an even greater risk of poor heart health later in life, according to a study from  Northwestern University and the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children's Hospital of Chicago.

The study of 2,814 men between the ages of 45 and 84 found cardiovascular health in older age was worse for fathers compared to nonfathers. Study participants' heart health was rated based on their diet, physical activity, smoking habits, weight, blood pressure, and level of lipids and glucose in their blood.

"The changes in heart health we found suggest that the added responsibility of childcare and the stress of transitioning to fatherhood may make it difficult for men to maintain a healthy lifestyle, such as a healthy diet and exercise," said corresponding author John James Parker, MD, an assistant professor at Northwestern.

However, despite fathers in the study having worse heart health in older age, they actually had lower rates of death than nonfathers. Parker said this conflicting association could be because fathers may have a more robust social support system, and social connectedness has been linked with lower mortality.

"Fathers may also be more likely to have someone as their future caretaker (i.e., their children) to help them attend medical appointments and manage medications and treatments as they get older," Parker said. "We also found that fathers had lower rates of depressive symptoms than nonfathers, so mental health may be contributing to the lower age-adjusted death rates in fathers."

The study included men who self-identified as Black, Chinese, Hispanic or White, and the age-adjusted rate of death for all Black fathers was lower than for Black nonfathers -- the only racial and ethnic subgroup with this association.

Men who became fathers at younger ages (25 years old and younger) -- especially Black and Hispanic men -- had worse heart health and high death rates and may benefit from focused clinical and public health attention, the authors suggest.

"If you're under 25, you may be less financially stable, your brain may be less mature, and, especially for racial and ethnic minorities, you may have lower-paying jobs with fewer benefits and limited leave policies," Parker said. "All of this can make it harder to focus on your health. There are a lot of public health interventions for young mothers, but no one has ever really looked at young fathers in this way."

To download the full study (current version in press), published in AJPM Focus, click here

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