Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

OXFORD, United Kingdom — Millions of people who suffered from a range of diseases while they were young have gone on to never have children, a new study reveals. The research from a team at the University of Oxford, involving over 2.5 million individuals from Finland and Sweden, marks a significant step in understanding the health-related factors contributing to childlessness, particularly in Western Europe and East Asia — where up to 20 percent of those born around 1970 are childless.

“Various factors are driving an increase in childlessness worldwide, with postponed parenthood being a significant contributor that potentially heightens the risk of involuntary childlessness,” says study lead author Dr. Aoxing Liu, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Helsinki’s Institute for Molecular Medicine in Finland (FIMM), in a university release. “Our study is the first to systematically explore how multiple early-life diseases relate to lifetime childlessness and low parity in both men and women.”

Researchers analyzed data from nationwide registers, focusing on 414 early-life diseases diagnosed in 1.4 million women (born between 1956 and 1973) and 1.1 million men (born between 1956 and 1968). The analysis centered on sibling pairs with differing childlessness statuses, revealing that the disease-childlessness link was more pronounced in individuals with no children or only one child, compared to those with multiple children.

A key finding is that more than half of the 74 diseases significantly linked to childlessness are mental-behavioral disorders. Additionally, novel associations were found between autoimmune, inflammatory diseases, and childlessness.

The study also highlighted notable gender differences: for example, schizophrenia and acute alcohol intoxication were more strongly associated with childlessness in men, whereas diabetes-related diseases and congenital anomalies had stronger associations with women.

grieving mental health
(Credit: Polina Zimmerman from Pexels)

The study also looked at the timing of disease onset. Women diagnosed with certain conditions, like obesity, at an earlier age (16-20) had higher levels of childlessness compared to those diagnosed later.

“As well as reinforcing demographic research on assortative mating and other socioeconomic factors linked to childlessness, this paper underscores the necessity for interdisciplinary research and enhanced public health emphasis on addressing early-life diseases among both men and women in relation to childlessness,” says study senior author Melinda Mills, professor and director of the Leverhulme Center for Demographic Science at Oxford Population Health.

Researchers also observed a significant link between the absence of a partner and childlessness, with childless individuals being more likely to be single. Six diseases in women and 11 in men remained associated with childlessness even among those with partners.

“This study reveals a connection between early-life diseases and childlessness, influencing both single and partnered women and men differently,” explains Andrea Ganna, associate professor and FIMM-EMBL group leader at the University of Helsinki’s FIMM. “By assessing the role of multiple early-life diseases on childlessness for 2.5 million people across Finland and Sweden, this study paves the way for a better understanding of how disease contributes to involuntary childlessness and the need for improved public health interventions.”

This study suggests the need for more research to differentiate between voluntary and involuntary childlessness, and to extend its findings beyond Nordic countries. It highlights the evolving nature of treatments, reproductive, and partnering practices in recent cohorts and underscores the need for improved public health interventions.

The study is published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour.

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