Single fathers often eat worse and binge drink more than parents with more traditional family arrangements, and it could be putting them at risk of early death.
In Wednesday's issue of The Lancet Public Health journal, researchers tracked more than 40,000 parents for 11 years to find out how single fathers fared when it came to their health.
After adjusting for differences in age, lifestyle, health and sociodemographic characteristics, single fathers' premature mortality risk was more than two times higher than other parents.
"What we found is that single fathers have the highest mortality rate across these four parent groups," said the study's lead author, Maria Chiu, of the Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences in Toronto. "It's a startlingly high mortality. They were three times higher than single moms and partnered fathers, and five times higher than partnered moms."
Over a decade, the findings translate to six single dads dying versus two single moms, two partnered fathers and one partnered mother out of every 100 parents from each group, on average.
Single fathers were also more likely to have cancer and cardiovascular conditions than single mothers. What's more, single dads were more likely than partnered fathers to have been hospitalized or taken to the emergency department during the previous year.
'Men don't take care of themselves as well'
About 333,000 Canadians families, or 3.5 per cent of census households, are headed by single dads with one or more kids under 25.
Zohrab Mawani is one of them.
When he heard that single fathers like him face double the risk of dying prematurely compared with single mothers and partnered parents, it really resonated with him.
"It leads me to think about all the time I spend alone and compare that with all the time that I did spend with my two kids," the Toronto-based father of an 18-year-old girl and 13-year-old son said in an interview.
The 47-year-old entrepreneur has been separated and divorced for about six years and says he juggles a variety of stresses including running a business, supporting his kids financially and trying to spend more time with them. He says he uses a variety of coping mechanisms.
"I made sure I kept exercising regularly," he said. "I definitely feel that that helps if I'm at the gym every morning or go for my run every morning. I'm a runner, so that relieves a lot of stress for me."
But he admits he could do more — the way he used to when he was married and his wife would encourage him to take care of his health.
"I think in general men don't take care of themselves as well as women may," he said. "It's a generalization, but I don't get to the doctor as often as I should."
'Lack of support structure'
Chiu said the study findings suggest doctors should be on the lookout for their patients who are single dads.
"This is an opportunity for the medical system to identify these high-risk individuals and really to provide advice to them in changing their behaviours and lifestyle factors," Chiu said.
In the initial questionnaire given to study participants, single fathers indicated they ate fewer fruits and vegetables and were more apt to binge-drink, defined as consuming five or more drinks at one sitting.
The study is limited because the researchers just checked in with people once, so they don't know if anyone changed any aspects of their lifestyles, such as eating or drinking habits, over time.
A commentary published with the study pointed to another factor.
Dr. Rachel Simpson of the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom said that single fathers had less social support than partnered fathers. "This lack of a support structure could provide a plausible explanation for the increased risk of mortality," she wrote.
Simpson also said it is important to note the positive effects of having children in the household, based on a 2004 Swedish study that suggested mortality was highest not among single fathers but in fathers who were not living with their children and in childless men living alone.
Chiu said single dads were also more likely to be alone because they've been widowed, and spousal bereavement could be contributing to their increased mortality rate.
Previous studies suggest that loneliness and social isolation may be worse for your health than smoking.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that researchers tracked more than 400,000 parents. In fact, the number of parents tracked was slightly more than 40,000.Feb 15, 2018 12:33 AM ET