In light of the Christmas season, we’ll discuss some of the little appreciated health benefits of having children. Too often, we are given the impression that pregnancy and childbirth is in one way or another a health detriment and burden. However, few people are aware of the ways in which their physical and psychological health benefits from childbirth.
According to national health statistics, approximately one in eight American women will have breast cancer in her lifetime and accordingly an estimated 175,000 women are diagnosed with breast cancer in the U.S. Each year. These numbers have led in recent years to a numerous well-publicized campaigns to educate women on breast cancer prevention and treatment. However, have you ever heard or read in any of these public discussions the fact that having a full-term pregnancy has been linked to a decrease in breast cancer risk? It’s true, and the earlier in life the pregnancy the better. For example, the World Health Organization’s published study of 250,000 women from around the world found that those who have their first child by age 18 have only about one-third the risk of breast cancer faced by women whose first birth occurs at age 35 or later. Similarly, another large study published in 1989 by the Centers for Disease Control examined data from eight U.S. cancer registries and found that lactation (breast-feeding) also plays a role in reducing breast cancer. The data showed that the more children a woman had and the longer the duration of breast-feeding after birth, the lower her risk of developing breast cancer―a point I routinely discuss with my patients.
But wait, there’s more! Pregnancy and childbirth have also shown preventative benefit against ovarian and endometrial cancer. Studies consistently show that women who have never had children are at least twice as likely to develop ovarian cancer as compared to those who have given birth.. In a similar pattern as seen with breast cancer, the more full-term pregnancies a woman has, the lower her risk of ovarian cancer. Ironically, birth control hawkers will readily argue that the pill reduces the risk of ovarian cancer in part because of a “pregnancy-like” effect on preventing ovulation. However, they are shamefully silent and remiss in their responsibility to warn women that this same pill has the opposite effect of pregnancy in terms of the even more common breast cancer.
In the not too distant past (1995), the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services once admitted that “childbearing is the most important known factor in preventing ovarian cancer.” Further still, studies have repeated the theme, wherein having children and more of them also decreases a woman’s risk of endometrial cancer.
Finally, we need also to appreciate that childbirth has a notably positive impact on a woman’s mental health. A 1992 Canadian study that examined more than 1,000 women health care workers, lawyers, engineers and accountants found that married women with children had the highest levels of psychological well-being compared to married and single women who did not have children. A Finnish study examining all women of reproductive age over a seven-year period revealed that women who carried to term were half as likely to die within the following year as women who had not been pregnant, even more striking―they were three-and-a-half times less likely to die as women who underwent induced abortions.
In summary, I’m not suggesting we see children as a mere means to improving women’s health (as a utilitarian might argue). Rather, we need to see through the lies that suggest children are a terrible burden and threat to a woman’s health. What better time of year than now to reflect on how much we can be blessed through that humble event of a child’s birth.
–Dr. Frank (Ob/Gyn)