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OPINION: New Study Says Having Over Two Kids Could Lead to Dementia, but There's More to the Story

A case could be made that parenthood done right keeps the mind rightly-oriented and purposefully engaged with the world

A new study is making waves online because it seems to point to dementia risk being exacerbated by having more children. The intriguing study out of Columbia University, entitled “Does Childbearing Affect Cognitive Health in Later Life? Evidence From an Instrumental Variable Approach,” seeks to examine whether having two children or more has an effect on whether parents develop dementia down the road.

The authors were able to conduct this study, interestingly enough, because people in Europe (where the research took place) tend to try for a third child if their first two children are the same gender. Parents whose first children include one of each gender, however, tend to stop there. So there is a division of sorts between parents of two and parents of three kids. The study determined that there was a relationship between having more than two children and dementia, but it’s not necessarily causal. Forbes has a good breakdown of the math required to reach this conclusion, and what to do with this information, for readers who are more mathematically-versed than I am.

Fortunately, Forbes concludes that the best thing to do with this new knowledge is not to have fewer kids (a point in their favor, in my incredibly media-skeptical mind), but to examine all the various features of having children. It is a very useful thought experiment to examine what factors come into play when having children, and as a woman of prime childbearing age, this is certainly top of the list of interests of my own right now.

How would having children change my life? It’s difficult to fully imagine before having children, but I have five siblings, two sisters and three brothers, and saw how my parents dealt with young children and teens, and what made each age range distinctly challenging and rewarding. I always hear that having a baby will make you so busy you’ll feel like you’re losing your mind, but the New York Post article “No kidding: Rearing 3 or more children could make you literally lose your mind, study says” didn’t sit right with me because the title gives the impression that the busyness of having children will really drive you up the wall… not exactly newsworthy by any metric. The study was focused on dementia, and here are some of the things that might lead to that.

Stress, Financial Pressure, and Possibility of Poverty 

It’s pretty straightforward to conclude that with more children comes more responsibility for both parents to work hard to provide, especially in today’s “empowered women” world full of skyrocketing inflation.

My mother once asked me, bewildered, why millennial women didn’t want to stay home with the kids. I distinctly recall marveling as I said, “Mom, it’s not that we don’t want to, it’s because we can’t.”

Millennial women are dealing with college loans because they were told they had to go to college to be fit to work — which they also have to do because, in the 1970s, the choice was made that the workforce should be doubled by the addition of women. Women choose whether they go to college, often with the encouragement of their families, but women my age did not choose to always be required to work. That choice was made for us, and it’s hard to see a way to come back from that.

It’s intriguing that so-called “progress” would actually lead to greater risk of dementia via a lifetime of stress over bills. Forbes summarizes it well:

“In Northern Europe, the cost of living is particularly high so that stresses of a large family may likewise be higher… [S]urvey participants in Northern Europe with three or more children do not benefit from increased rates of contact with their children, in the same was as elders in other regions do, so they experienced a lose-lose set of circumstances — greater costs in rearing children without even the payoff of more time spent with family as they age.”

Reduced Social Gatherings

Tied into my earlier point about women in the workforce, the study points out that women who are engaged with childrearing have less adult social contact, and social contact is key to curbing dementia progress. I would heavily emphasize to people considering having children that there is an incredible social benefit of children, though; it’s not necessarily just adult contact that keeps people sharp.

While keeping up with a clever or very rambunctious child (like my husband) will undoubtedly test and engage mental acuity, it’s a matter of survival when you’re raising kids. It is true that parents who are properly oriented toward prioritizing the well-being of their children by staying home with them, or spending as much time as possible with them, will see fewer adults. However, as the Global Family Research Project points out, having kids and caring about your kids is a great way to make connections with other parents who have the same end goals of making a better world for their kids.

Social Stimulation for Older Adults

Another key factor that the authors of the study don’t really appear to unpack is the idea of the isolated geriatric patient. I worked in nursing homes for many of my years in healthcare, and it was deeply saddening to me how long children would go without visiting their parents. Thankfully, modern American nursing homes focus much more than they did in years past on engaging elderly, often-isolated adults in meaningful activities, excursions, outings, and thought-provoking games, music, and events.

Despite the New York Post’s provocative (and slightly inaccurate) headline, they do include this quote from neurologist Gayatri Devi:

“It’s a very provocative study. It’s an interesting study. You have to interpret it with caution.” … She said the study largely focuses on European countries and excludes more communal and village societies in Asia and Africa, for example, where elderly people may be less isolated.

Dementia is an interesting and complex issue, and the frequency of dementia among parents who choose to have more children points more to societal weaknesses in the West than it does to the negative effects of having children. The weakness of needing both parents to work just to afford the accepted lifestyle is huge; hand-in-hand with that is the increasing vise-like pressure of rising prices for everything.

As Dr. Devi pointed out in the New York Post article, “It’s more about keeping your brain engaged. Children may not have anything to do with it.” She may be right: Dementia may just be too complex to blame on any one factor, and it’s possible that people who want to have more than two children are simply more genetically inclined to dementia.

At the end of the day, the key still appears to be maintaining an interest in the world and staying curious about life. And no matter what any study says, kids are great at keeping parents engaged with the wonder that can be found in everyday life, on their toes as the kids spring from one perilous situation to the next as their judgment centers develop, and constantly focused on making the world better. I firmly believe there’s a case to be made that parenthood done right keeps the mind rightly-oriented and purposefully engaged with the world.

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