Single Mothers More Likely to Die Early

From the WebMD Archives

April 6, 2000 (Atlanta) -- Single mothers are at greater risk of early death than mothers with partners, according to a new Swedish study. In particular, researchers found these women were far more likely to die of suicide, violence, or alcohol-related causes.

"We saw that [single] mothers demonstrated a nearly 70% higher risk of premature death than coupled mothers," study author Måns Rosén, PhD, tells WebMD.

Even when two factors known to affect single mothers more than those with partners -- lower socioeconomic status, and worse mental and physical health -- were taken into account, single mothers had a higher risk of early death, Rosén says. Rosén is director of the Centre for Epidemiology at the National Board of Health and Welfare in Stockholm.

The researchers analyzed 1991-1995 government records for more than 90,000 single mothers and more than 622,000 with partners. The women were 29-54 years old, with children up to 15 years old. They found that fewer single mothers had college degrees (25% vs. 31%). Single mothers were six times more likely to receive welfare benefits and twice as likely to get unemployment benefits. And while 81% of mothers with partners owned their homes, only 33% of single mothers did.

According to the findings, which were published in the journal TheLancet, the single mothers had twice the risk of suicide of mothers with partners, three times the risk of violent death, and two-and-one-half times the risk of alcohol-related death.

"[Single mothers] have the responsibility for both being the only parent and having a full time job," says Rosén. They often have poorly developed social support systems, he adds. "From my point of view, I think that the politicians and the system-makers should consider what we as a society can do to support this vulnerable group -- in economic ways or in trying to build social network or in other respects."

Rosén says his findings probably apply to other Western societies, including the U.S. "In some respects, I believe that you would find more pronounced differences than in Swedish society, since we have a quite good social welfare system for single mothers."

"These findings are definitely applicable in this country," Nadine Kaslow, PhD, tells WebMD. "There are definitely some studies that show that single motherhood is a risk factor for suicide and that the more children you have, the greater the risk." Kaslow, a professor and chief psychologist at Emory University's department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Grady Health System in Atlanta, reviewed the study for WebMD.

"First, it is important to remember that there are many single mothers who do extremely well and aren't at increased risk, " Kaslow says. "That being said, I think that having a partner helps serve as a buffer and provides a lot of the necessary supports to cope with the stresses that we encounter in our lives."

Single mothers aren't helpless, says Kaslow. "I think what you can do is really build on other aspects of your social support network -- other family members, friends, community members. Be sure to have people share in the care-giving responsibilities, and be sure to find ways to have adult time for yourself." She suggests that if single mothers are still feeling lots of stress, they seek community support and professional help.

Kaslow says that while it is unlikely that the U.S. will develop a social services program as extensive as Sweden's, it is crucial to create safety nets for welfare-to-work mothers. "We have to have systems put in place [to prevent them from becoming] the working poor," she says.

Although funding for social services programs is limited, Kaslow recommends that these programs include improved day care, flexible work schedules, and health insurance for children.

Vital Information:

  • Swedish researchers report that single mothers face a risk of early death that's nearly 70% higher than mothers with partners, even when differences in finances, health, and mental status are considered. The highest risks were from suicide, violence, and alcohol-related causes.
  • The researchers say the trend is applicable to women in the U.S. as well.
  • An observer says that many single mothers do very well, but having a partner can be a buffer against stress. Improving day care, work schedules, and child health insurance can help these women.