Single dads die at more than twice the rate of single mums or partnered parents, study suggests

Alex Matthews-King
Single dads tended to have less healthy lifestyles, with more binge drinking and eating less fruit and veg: iStock

Single fathers have a risk of death more than double that of either single mothers, or parents in a couple, a study has found.

Research tracking mortality rates in more than 40,000 Canadian parents found that solo dads appear to be more at risk of health and lifestyle issues.

These risky behaviours appear to be contributing to higher death rates and are things that doctors should be supporting, the authors say.

“Our research highlights that single fathers have higher mortality, and demonstrates a need for public health policies to help identify and support these men,” says lead author Dr Maria Chiu, Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences and University of Toronto, Canada.

The study is not able to say that being single caused the deaths, but a lifestyle survey completed at the beginning of the study did identify a number of unhealthy lifestyle factors, like excessive drinking and poor diet in this group.

These “could be an important area to address to improve health in this high-risk group,” Dr Chiu added.The study, published in the Lancet Public Health journal today, reveals from this group 5.8 single dads would die each year out of a group of 1,000.

This compared to fathers in a couple, where the mortality rate was 1.9 per 1,000, and single mothers who died at a rate of 1.7 per 1,000.

Mothers who had a partner had the best survival rates, and after controlling for factors like age, socioeconomic group, and other life style factors single fathers were dying at more than twice the rate of other parents.

The survey showed they ate fewer fruit and vegetables, and were more likely to binge drink than single mothers and partnered parents.

They were also more likely than single mothers to be separated, divorced or widowed which the authors predict could have additional psychological stress if they were unexpectedly becoming single parents.

These are the sorts of issues that could benefit from a dedicated effort from health professionals.

“Doctors’ appointments could be an opportunity for doctors to engage with single fathers to help them to improve their health." said Dr Chiu. "Research has shown that these conversations can help to motivate patients to adhere to treatment plans, make better decisions about their health, and influence their behaviour and recovery.

“Where possible, investing time in this way could be beneficial to help improve the health of this high-risk group,”

There is little research in this area and the authors say most of it has focused on single mothers. One Swedish study also found an increased risk in fathers, but only a 30 per cent increase, rather than 100 per cent.

The parents were followed up with, on average, 11 years after the study began. Among the 40,000 participants only 871 were single dads, of which 35 died in the study period, compared to 4,590 single mothers.

This small sample size could mean that small factors are exaggerated.

Writing a comment on the findings, Dr Rachel Simpson of Oxford University cautioned that size of the extra risk from solo-fatherhood is up for debate, but it does seem to be having an impact.

“Single fathers do seem to have an increased risk of mortality compared with partnered fathers,” Dr Simpson said.

However children also appear to have a protective effect, with other studies showing single, childless men and fathers living alone away from their children had higher mortality.

“From a public health perspective, health-care professionals should be made aware of this vulnerable group while further research is conducted to elucidate the reasons behind the increased risk of premature mortality in single fathers,” she added.