The fatal flaw of a growing family

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The Independent Online

In a discovery few mothers would consider surprising, scientists have found that having children significantly shortens the lives of women.

In a discovery few mothers would consider surprising, scientists have found that having children significantly shortens the lives of women.

The physical burden associated with bearing children decreases a woman's lifespan substantially, according to a study of 18th and 19th-century family records. The findings applied alike to peasants and aristocrats. For men, being a parent had no discernible effect on when they died.

Helena Korpelainen, an evolutionary biologist from the University of Helsinki, found that although peasant women in the 18th and 19th centuries did not live as long as aristocratic females, they produced more children.

In both groups it was found that the more children a woman had, the shorter the lifespan, even taking into account the increased risk of dying in childbirth. This indicates that being a mother of a large family was more likely to lead to an early grave, no matter how well off you were, Dr Korpelainen said.

The study, published in The Proceedings of the Royal Society, compared genealogical records of European aristocrats with the records of the Finnish Lutheran church, which kept lists of births and deaths among poor families in eastern Finland.

As expected, aristocrats tended to live longer but only for women, showing that being wealthy did not in itself lead to a long life. Having children, however, was the greatest risk factor in a woman dying before her time.

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