In light of a few recent studies the media is abuzz with the notion that Fatherhood makes mean healthier. Are there really intrinsic health benefits for a man when he has a child?
One recent study reveals that fathers are less likely than childless men to die of cardiovascular disease. Led by a Stanford University urologist and tracking nearly 140,000 men, it’s the latest of many scientific studies suggesting that fatherhood improves men’s health.
Another new study, published two weeks ago found that fatherhood lowered testosterone levels in its male participants. This triggered headlines such as “The Testosterone Tradeoff: Hormone Decrease Makes Better Fathers,” “Testosterone Drop Helps Men Do Dad-Duty,” and, provocatively, “Does Being a Father Make You Less of a Man?”
The five-year study tracked 624 Filipino men, among whom “fathers reporting three hours or more of daily childcare had lower testosterone at follow-up compared with fathers not involved in care.”
So does producing a child equate to a healthier, longer life?
“One of my strengths is my bullshit detector,” says Harvard Medical School assistant professor Dr. Abraham Morgentaler, author of Testosterone for Life, and The Male Body, both men’s health books. Reading media reports about the cardiovascular disease study, which appeared Monday in an Oxford University Press medical journal, Morgentaler’s response was thus: “I laughed.”
“Yes, the study found that fatherhood reduced the risk of heart attacks, but you have to read all the way to the end to learn that the overall death rate between fathers and non-fathers was the same. So it doesn’t mean fathers live longer, just that fewer of them die of heart attacks. So we jump to the conclusion that fatherhood is good for you because these men had fewer heart attacks. But what does it matter if men die of heart attacks or of something else?”
“The storyline given out about this study perpetuates pernicious myths about men’s sexuality. We’re stuck in this idea that men are testosterone-addled maniacs, that high testosterone fuels crazy sexual behavior” and low testosterone turns Conan the Barbarian cuddly.
“The idea that a man’s behavior is directly related to whether his testosterone is a little higher or lower is simply false. Lower testosterone does not turn men into wimps. We are not simply products of our testosterone. Having higher testosterone doesn’t mean a man’s more likely to cheat on his partner or be a bad father.”
Nor does lower testosterone make him a good one—low testosterone has been linked to depression, anxiety, insomnia, and high diabetes rates.
“It’s a basic mistake to assume that because low testosterone and fatherhood are connected, one is causing the other,” says Morgentaler. “It’s an even worse error to assume that this is adaptive—and that it’s either good or bad.”
Then does fatherhood affect a man’s biology at all? It’s obvious that it does not affect it in the same way a that a woman’s body will be. A man’s body cannot discern if any of its billions of spermatozoa have resulted in a successful pregnancy. His aorta and amygdala do not receive this information by automatic transfer. So what may be easier to understand is that it is not the biological or physical fact of paternity that matters.
What makes more sense is that it is the presence of children that changes men’s lives, and in turn, changes their bodies. It’s the care-giving, the bonding, the sleep deprivation, the lack of sex, the worrying, the joy. It’s the rough-housing on the living room floor, the games of freeze tag on the lawn, and the nightly dinners that, suddenly, always contain a green vegetable. A stepfather or adoptive father should reap exactly the same health benefits as a biological dad.
“It all has to do with relationships,” says Columbia University associate professor Aaron E. Katz, author of The Definitive Guide to Prostate Cancer. “Parenthood makes men healthier if they want to keep active and eat right and really be with their kids—not just take them to baseball games but physically play baseball with them.”
“You want to stay alive and see your grandkids,” says Katz. “That’s a driving force.”
Northwestern University Assistant Professor Craig F. Garfield, a pediatrician who analyzed the 2010 study of Midwestern urbanites in a Journal of the American Medical Association article, agrees.
“What surprised me was how much these fathers really tried to clean up their act. For example, many of them described cutting down on risky behaviors such as smoking, partying, and hanging out in risky situations. These fathers tried to eat better and they tried to exercise more. They really saw themselves as important role models for their children, regardless of whether their child was a boy or a girl. …They described wanting to ‘be there’ for their child as the child got older, and part of that meant that the dad needed to take care of himself today—eat right, exercise, stay out of trouble—so he could be there as the child grows. That can be a powerful motivator for men.”
Becoming a dad makes you a role model, so many men, once thrust into such a position, act accordingly. Conversely, if men know that little eyes aren’t watching them, little ears aren’t hearing them, and little hands clutching little bats aren’t awaiting their fastballs, they might feel freer to do drugs, drive recklessly, and eat bacon till they’re up to their eyeballs in cholesterol—at least, according to the Swedish study.
So while there may not be a conclusive study that having a child triggers some positive chemical reactions in a man’s DNA it can be inferred that the pressures, and the rewards, of fatherhood often lead men to be better people which can in turn make them healthier and help lead longer lives.