Do More Kids Make Dad Healthier?

As the youngest of six and father of two (so far), I’m a fan of most things that promote having more children. It’s a rare message in our country today. With our ever more uncertain economic future, these days more couples are deciding to have either no children or waiting until they are older to have maybe one. But this past month research came out suggesting that men who love their heart may want to consider having multiple kids.

A new study says that men who have either no children or only one are much more likely to develop heart disease compared to fathers with a full quiver of offspring. Researchers studied nearly 138,000 married or once-married men over 50 years of age. Their research covered more than ten years and discovered some alarming numbers. The men who never fathered children were 17% more likely to die from heart disease compared to fathers of multiple children and 13% more likely to die from cardiovascular problems than men who had sired only one child.

The main researcher, Dr. Michael Eisenberg, made it clear that more research is necessary to see obvious direct connections of number of kids and heart disease. However, the researchers were careful to take into account other heart risk factors like smoking or body mass index. Eisenberg isn’t sure why fathers of two or more have healthier hearts, but the numbers don’t lie.

Eisenberg’s two main theories for his findings are worlds apart. One possibility links heart disease to infertility. In fact, Eisenberg and his team specialize in infertility research and they did the study hoping to find a connection between infertility and men’s overall health. Eisenberg said,

A lot of times when we see men for infertility, they’re very young. A lot of these men are totally healthy. It’s sort of eye-opening to hear there could be something else going on.

However, this particular study did not supply figures on how many of the fatherless men were infertile and how many simply avoided procreation. In other words, the study gives no clear proof that fertility has anything to do with heart disease. Of course, some in the media jumped all over a big story linking low sperm count to chest pains. MSNBC, for example, began their story: “Dads are less likely to die of heart disease than men who’ve never had kids, a study out Monday found, raising new questions about a possible biological link between male infertility and overall health.”

The media speculation notwithstanding, even Eisenberg readily admitted there might be more to the research besides the infertility link.

There may be more than just a biologic reason. … Maybe having children causes men to have healthier behaviors, so fathers will live longer.

Others have looked at the new study and hold that Eisenberg’s “maybe” is actually the “more likely” of the two choices. It appears more likely that marriage and especially fatherhood have a healthy effect on men. In fact, just last July, research came out showing that family men typically got help quicker when they had a heart attack. A recent health news report even concluded by saying:

Marriage has proved to be beneficial to men’s health in numerous other studies. Previous research shows that married men live longer, are happier and adopt healthier lifestyles than single men. Married men are also less likely to engage in aggressive or illegal behavior.

I’ve always said one of the most important reasons a man should get married is so he can stop being such a jerk and idiot all the time.

Wives help us see when we are either being pompous or reckless. Is it any stretch to see how having more children furthers this maturation process?

Northwestern University Assistant Professor Craig F. Garfield looked at Eisenberg’s study and noticed a clear connection that fatherhood leads to healthier choices:

What surprised me was how much these fathers really tried to clean up their act. For example, many of them described cutting down on risky behaviors such as smoking, partying, and hanging out in risky situations. These fathers tried to eat better and they tried to exercise more. They really saw themselves as important role models for their children, regardless of whether their child was a boy or a girl. … They described wanting to “be there” for their child as the child got older, and part of that meant that the dad needed to take care of himself today — eat right, exercise, stay out of trouble — so he could be there as the child grows. That can be a powerful motivator for men.

When I got married I knew it meant now there was a wife to take care of, but I also knew she was a strong woman who had the full ability to take care of herself. But when I saw my little Abigail Rose for the first time it transformed me: “This life needs me.” She needs me to survive, so that I can make sure that she survives. She needs me to be healthy so I can beat up the young men who try to date her. She needs a daddy with a loving heart and a healthy heart. My perspective had changed.

There’s a singer/songwriter I love named Andrew Peterson, and he has a song called “Family Man” that says it all:

I am a family man
I traded in my mustang for a minivan
This is not what I was headed for when I began
This was not my plan
I am a family man

But everything I had to lose
Came back a thousand times in you
And you fill me up with love
Fill me up with love
And you help me stand
’cause I am a family man

I’m a better man because of my two daughters. They make my heart grow and beat with pride and joy. I hope my heart lasts long enough for them to know they have captured it.