Pressure sends single parents to early grave

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Lone mothers are almost 70 per cent more likely to die prematurely than those who are living with a partner, according to new research.

Lone mothers are almost 70 per cent more likely to die prematurely than those who are living with a partner, according to new research.

The majority of single mothers suffer from more financial hardship and social deprivation than couples but the findings show that once this is taken into account, lone parents are still 20 per cent more likely to die early than their cohabiting or married counterparts.

Dr Gunilla Ringback Weitoft, the co-author of the report, said: "The stress of lone parenthood itself and the lack of emotional support should not be underestimated. These mothers have to act as father and mother. Even if the child sees quite a lot of their father when the child is at home, the mother has to make all the decisions herself. She may not have the best relationship with her ex-partner which can also cause problems."

The study was carried out by the Centre for Epidemiology, at the Swedish National Board of Health and Welfare, and is published in the Lancet today.

In Britain, a quarter of all households with dependent children are headed by a lone parent. Nearly three million children live in a lone parent household, one fifth of all dependent children. Typically, lone parents' incomes are less than half of those of two-parent families, with average net incomes of just over £100 a week.

Maeve Sherlock, the director of the National Council for One Parent Families said that although lone parenthood was very stressful it was unlikely that being alone with a child was the sole cause of increased mortality. She said: "The causal relationship between lone parenthood and premature mortality is not clear. The stress of divorce and relationship breakdown is a factor, as is the fact that the same problems which lead to divorce can lead to stress-related conditions."

The researchers, who analysed death statistics for more than 90,000 Swedish single mothers and 620,000 mothers with partners, between 1991 and 1995 found that lone mothers were particularly at risk of suicide, violence and alcohol-related death. The population census data revealed an almost 70 per cent higher risk of premature death among single mothers compared with mothers living with partners.

The excess risk was 20 per cent after adjustments for socio-economic factors and histories of severe health and psychiatric problems. The risk of premature death increased in relation to how long a woman was without a partner.

A closer analysis comparing trends in 1985 and 1990 revealed that mothers without partners in both those years had a risk of committing suicide that increased almost four-fold and a five-fold higher risk of falling victim to violence or dying from alcohol-related causes.

Those without partners in both years faced the greatest risk. However the researchers pointed out that an intact marriage was no guarantee of an emotionally healthy, well-supervised home environment.

Dr Ringback Weitoft said: "In the UK, 20 per cent of lone parents indicate violence and 15 per cent alcoholism and drug abuse as major factors in the breakdown of the relationship with their partner. Lone parenthood is for some people an escape ... and may actually improve their health chances."