Health & Wellness

'Drip, drip, drip' of daily stress: Single parenting takes health toll

There’s no question that being single mom can be tough going. But new study suggests parenting alone could also damage your health, no matter where you live.

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Study: Single parenting takes a toll later in life

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Study: Single parenting takes a toll later in life

Play Video - 2:25

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Researchers found women who spent time parenting alone were more likely to develop health problems in later life, compared to those who were in a marriage when their children were growing up, according to the study published in the The Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.

“The most important finding was that single mothers in almost all countries had poorer health as they reach older age than women who were married,” said the study’s lead author, Lisa Berkman, a professor at the Harvard Chan School of Public Health and director of the Harvard Center for Population and Development Studies. “They have a difficult time performing . . . things like climbing up stairs, getting around, cooking.”

'Drip, drip, drip of daily stress'

The researchers didn’t look at the cause of the health problems, but Berkman suspects the stress of raising kids alone may play a role.

“These things take a long time to develop and what happens with single moms is it’s much more likely that it’s the ‘drip drip drip’ of daily stress that takes a toll on their health,” Berkman said.

TODAY Parents contributor Sarah Maizes knows exactly what that’s like.

“I never get a break,” said the divorced mother of three who has spent eight years as a single parent. “It’s my kids, my kids’ social life, the cats, the house, and somewhere down here is me.”

Berkman and her colleagues pored over data from more than 25,000 women in the U.S. and Europe. They found that the longer a woman parented by herself, the bigger the risk.

Overall, there was nearly a 30 percent increase among American women in the risk of having problems with activities of daily living, the study found.

The researchers also found that while there was a minimal effect on health if single motherhood lasted less than seven years, the risk rose by nearly 80 percent among women who were single parents for 14 or more years.

“The subgroup of women that seems to be the most impacted are the ones that have children before the age of 18, if they’re single parents for more than eight years, if they have two or more children,” said NBC medical correspondent Dr. Natalie Azar. “We know from previous research that people who are single parents can have greater risk in their lifetime of overall mortality, as well as cardiovascular disease and mental health issues.”

Time for yourself

There are things the 9 million single moms in the U.S. can do to stay healthier, experts say.

Make sure to take time out of your schedule, no matter how busy it is, to get health checkups. And block out some down time just for yourself.

But the biggest risk reducer, apparently, is finding another partner to help rear the children.

“Getting remarried helps,” Berkman said. “One of the most important things was the duration of being a single mom. Remarriage in our study was a protective thing.”

Linda Carroll is a regular contributor to NBCNews.com and TODAY.com. She is co-author of "The Concussion Crisis: Anatomy of a Silent Epidemic” and the recently published “Duel for the Crown: Affirmed, Alydar, and Racing’s Greatest Rivalry”

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