Older adults with three or more children are more likely to experience cognitive decline compared to those with less children, new research has reported.

Academics from Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health have found that cognitive impairment as a result of high fertility was the most common amongst older adults living in Northern Europe.

Previous studies have found that an individual’s education and occupation can trigger cognitive complications.

Lead author Professor Vegard Skirbekk said: “Understanding the factors that contribute to optimal late-life cognition is essential for ensuring successful aging at the individual and societal levels – particularly in Europe, where family sizes have shrunk and populations are aging rapidly.”

Fellow researcher Professor Eric Bonsang said: “For individuals, late life cognitive health is essential for maintaining independence and being socially active and productive in late life.

“For societies, ensuring the cognitive health of the older population is essential for extending work lives and reducing health care costs and care needs.”

During the study, the team of scientists examined data from the Survey of Health, Aging and Retirement in Europe (SHARE) to assess whether an individual’s cognitive ability was affected by the number of children they have. The SHARE survey is filled in by people aged 65 and over.

The researchers found that the participants with three or more children were more likely to develop cognitive complications compared to those with fewer children. The results were the same amongst both men and women, the study has reported.

According to the findings, having more children could push you below the poverty line, which has previously been associated with cognitive decline.

In addition, having more children makes it more difficult for a woman to work, meaning their brain will be less stimulated compared to if they worked.

The findings also show that cognitive deterioration is common amongst those with more children as raising a child is stressful, therefore having a bigger family will put more strain on your brain.

Professor Eric Bonsang said: “The negative effect of having three or more children on cognitive functioning is not negligible, it is equivalent to 6.2 years of aging.”

Professor Skirbekk said: “Given the magnitude of the effect, future studies on late-life cognition should also examine fertility as a prognosticator alongside more commonly researched predictors, such as education, occupational experiences, physical exercise, and mental and physical health.

“In addition, future studies should address the potential effects of childlessness or having one child on late-life cognition.”

He added: “We also need more information on the types of interactions, supports, and conflicts that occur between parents and children, which may influence cognitive outcomes.”

The study was published in the journal Demography.

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