Age at First Birth and Later Life Health in Western and Eastern Europe

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Emily Grundy, Else Foverskov

MUCH OF THE research on life-course determinants of later life health has focused on cumulated effects of socioeconomic disadvantage (Ben-Shlomoand Kuh 2002; Luo and Waite 2005). Family life courses also involve differential exposures to stresses and supports and interact with other health relevant domains including socioeconomic status, health-related behaviors, and social support (Barban 2013; Grundy and Read 2015). The transition to parenthood is a pivotal life-course event whose timing and context may have implications for subsequent family and socioeconomic trajectories and for health (Knoester and Eggebeen 2006; Mirowsky 2002). Numerous studies of contemporary Western populations indicate that an early age at entry to parenthood is associated with poorer health and higher mortality inlater life.
Several processes are hypothesized to underlie this association between early parenthood and poorer later health. For women, pregnancy, parturition, and lactation present physiological challenges that may be greater for young mothers (Pirkle et al. 2014). Young mothers and fathers may also be less resilient in the face of the physical, emotional, and economic stresses involved in raising children and have fewer stress-buffering resources (Barban 2013). Additionally, early parenthood may disrupt educational and career progression and increase the chances of divorce and of high completed family size, all factors associated with socioeconomic disadvantage, health-damaging stress, and poorer later life health (Ermisch andPevalin 2005; Grundy and Read 2015; Hofferth et al., 2001). Apart from these potential causal mechanisms, an additional, or alternative, explanation for associations is deprivation experienced earlier in life, given that childhood disadvantage is associated with increased chances of early parenthood and with poorer socioeconomic outcomes and poorer health in later years (Henretta 2007; Hobcraft 2008; Maughan and Lindelow 1997; Pudrovska and Carr 2009; Sigle-Rushton 2005).
These linkages between early parenthood and later health may depend on contextual factors that vary between regions, countries, and population subgroups. For example, whether early childbearing is regarded as problematic or normative will influence selection into early parenthood and health-relevant aspects of the circumstances, status, and future life chances of young parents (Koropeckyj-Cox, Pienta, and Brown 2007; Maughan and Lindelow 1997). Cross-national studies may provide insights into the extent to which associations between early parenthood and poorer later health are universal or context specific. Comparisons between Eastern and Western Europe are of particular interest because of the longstanding pattern of earlier female marriage and fertility in the East, which implies less selection into early motherhood (Hajnal 1965; Frejka and Sardon 2004). Additionally, in the state socialist regimes of the former Soviet Union and Eastern bloc countries, female education and employment were encouraged, the state provided childcare, housing, and other family benefits, and returns from better education in terms of occupational advancement or higher income were lower than in the West (Katz 1999; Klesment 2013; Muresanet al. 2008; Stankuniene and Jasilione 2008; Zakharov 2008). All of these factors may have reduced disadvantages resulting from early parenthood.
In this article we extend the literature on long-term health implications of early parenthood by comparing associations in Western and Eastern Europe using retrospective life-course data for 11 countries included in the Generations and Gender Surveys. We examine associations between early parenthood and self-rated health among women and men aged 50–80, taking account of childhood circumstances that may influence both entry to early parenthood and later health, and intermediate outcomes relevant to health, such as experience of divorce and adult socioeconomic status. We also investigate whether early age at first birth in itself or deviation from societal norms appears to be the more important influence on health in later life by undertaking analyses using indicators of age at first birth measured in absolute terms (chronological age) and relative to the mean for the relevant country and birth cohort. We examine effects for both women and men to shed light on the extent to which associations may be biologically or socially influenced.
Original languageEnglish
JournalPopulation and Development Review
Issue number2
Pages (from-to)245-269
Number of pages25
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2016

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