I am the proud mom of three wild kids. They range from five to twelve years old and the laundry, arguments, and half-eaten meals around here are endless.
You know what isn’t endless though? My patience and sanity.
Every single night, I go to bed with a twitchy eye and new grey hair and I wonder if I’m losing my damn mind.
Turns out, I might be.
A new study out of Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health shows that having three or more kids negatively impacts cognitive function later in life.
Basically, the more kids a family has, the more likely for a cognitive decline, researchers say.
The study focused on northern Europe where there are higher rates of cognitive decline in later life.
Researchers used the Survey of Health, Aging and Retirement in Europe (SHARE) to look at 20 European countries and Israel to see how those aged 65 and older. They looked at how those individuals who had at least two children (or more) fared as they aged.
What they found is that those who have three or more kids experienced stressed resources but not an increase in social status, which further impacted later cognitive health.
Notably, the strain of bigger families impacted the cognitive health of different genders equally.
“Understanding the factors that contribute to optimal late-life cognition is essential for ensuring successful aging at the individual and societal levels—particularly in Europe, where family sizes have shrunk and populations are aging rapidly,”
Vegard Skirbekk, Ph.D., professor of population and family health at Columbia Mailman School said in a press release.
The study looked at 73,353 parents with three or more kids and found that they experienced higher rates of poverty, strained financial resources and lowered standards of living, which increased stress and anxiety.
Having three kids and constantly feeling the struggle to stretch a dollar in my own house, I fully understand the wear and tear of how that kind of nonstop stress can erode one’s sanity.
But fertility rates didn’t just impact families on an individual level.
On a societal level, the study showed how mothers were forced to spend less time in the labor market, which impacts everyone. Not only are parents less able to save for retirement, but they end up needing to rely on public assistance later in life.
On the plus side, the study revealed that having a bigger family reduced the risk of future social isolation, a serious problem faced by some aging populations.
When there are more adult children there to interact with and help out, it appears to lessen the risk of certain types of dementia, depression, and other cognitive setbacks.
So, how much of an impact does having three or more kids negatively impact cognitive health later in life?
Well, it ages the brain by approximately 6.2 years.
But as Europeans experience a decline in birth rates with fewer families choosing to have more than two kids, older folks may experience healthier cognition.
That said, researchers still have a lot of questions.
“Given the magnitude of the effect, future studies on late-life cognition should also examine fertility as a prognosticator alongside more commonly researched predictors, such as education, occupational experiences, physical exercise, and mental and physical health,” Skirbekk noted in a public statement.
As a stressed-out mother of three kids reading this research, a couple of things stood out to me.
First, creating social safety nest like affordable, safe, and reliable childcare would be a huge deal to all families and dramatically reduce stress levels.
The study notes how the financial strain of additional kids can negatively impact not just families but a whole society when we lose talent in the job market. Why wouldn’t we focus on finding ways to support families?
And second, when parents say they need help, we should listen.
Stress is a powerful force that can erode the body, mind, and spirit. And while I’m all for science backing us up when we say that we need more help and that this shit is hard AF, and that we need a different social structure to support growing families.
It shouldn’t take a scientific research team to tell us what we already know; that raising kids makes you lose your damn mind.
It doesn’t matter how many kids any parent has. Raising kids in 2022 is damn hard no matter where you are.
There may be evidence that some parents will experience a decline in their mental faculties later in life due to the stress and strain of raising up a family. But, that doesn’t mean it is less challenging and stressful for everyone else.
Researchers in the study noted that parents who are able to create ways to manage their stress by getting sleep and “investing in cognitively stimulating leisure activities,” may help fend off some of the negative impacts that parental stress can bring.