• By Dartington SRU
  • Posted on Wednesday 25th February, 2009

Fathers also feel the long-term strain of young parenthood

An association between teenage motherhood and an increased risk of heart disease in later life is likely to have less to do with the biological impact of pregnancy than with lifestyle, a new report from the UK Medical Research Council suggests. Rebecca Hardy’s study is believed to have been the first to examine the risks for teenage fathers as well as mothers. It found elevated risks for both. Her work was designed to shed light on differing scientific views of the impact of pregnancy on women’s bodies. Changes associated with healthy fetal development put mothers at greater risk for health problems in later life, including coronary heart disease (CHD). Some scientists believe that younger mothers are at greater risk because they live with these physiological changes for longer. An alternative view is that later risk of CHD has more to do with behavioral or lifestyle differences associated with the reasons people have children at different ages. Research that has shown that teenage parents are more likely to come from a poor socio-economic background than their older counterparts tends to support that argument.Hardy’s study tested these theories by investigating the differences between the experiences of teenage mothers and fathers based on the premise that if the risks for CHD were found to be similar they must be rooted in behavioral rather than biological causes.The new evidence to that effect suggests that the risks are more amenable to prevention and intervention than previously thought.Published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, Hardy’s findings confirm that teenage parents in the UK are more likely to come from a low socio-economic background, to smoke more heavily, to be less active physically and to be less well educated.Or at least they were in the 1960s when the subject of the study were teenagers. The data for this research came from the Medical Research Council National Survey of Health and Development housed the recently established MRC Unit for Lifelong Health and Ageing. Several thousand men and women born in a single week in 1946 have been assessed at various times throughout their lives, most recently at age 53. The 2,500 selected for the study had filed information at each time of assessment and had at least one child. Hardy had data on risk factors for CHD, such as height, weight, Body Mass Index (BMI), hip to waist ratios, blood pressure and cholesterol levels. She also had information on each person’s socio-economic status as a child and as an adult.Blood pressure was higher for teenage parents by the time they reached their fifties, but unlike the other risk factors, it could not so readily be explained by behavioral and lifestyle factors. Hardy thinks that it might be down to stress. Becoming a parent earlier might result in higher levels of stress which in turn leads to sustained high blood pressure. More research is needed. Overall, and doubts aside, Hardy and the other researchers from the MRC suggest that teenage parents should be targetted with family-based lifestyle interventions.See:: Hardy R, Lawlor DA, Black S, Mishra GD, Kuh D (2009) “Age at birth of first child and coronary heart disease risk factors at age 53 years in men and women: British birth cohort study”, Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, 63, pp 99-105.

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