Social Roles and Women’s Health in Mid-life
Many studies have shown that women who occupy multiple social roles, namely as employee, wife, and mother, are healthier in mid-life than women who occupy two or fewer of these roles. There has been little research, however, to determine the reason for this association.
In this week’s edition of the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health , researchers report that the health status of women when they are young have little or no bearing on their health in mid-life. Occupation of multiple social roles, however, does influence mid-life health.
About the Study
Anne McMunn of the Department of Epidemiology and Public Health at the University College of London and her colleagues conducted their research using data on nearly 1800 women, which was collected by the Medical Research Council’s National Study of Health and Development. This study included people born in Great Britain in 1946 and followed them throughout their lives.
Information on women’s health status, height, weight, obesity, and mental health was collected at several intervals between ages 15-54. Data on marital status, employment status, and parental status were also collected and used to create a social role history. Researchers compared the women’s health at mid-life to the number of social roles that each woman occupied.
The findings showed that the more social roles women occupied, the better their health status in mid-life. Women who were employed, married, and mothers had the best health and lowest rate of obesity. Career homemakers had the worst health and the highest rate of obesity, followed by single mothers and childless women.
Researchers examined women’s physical and mental health, as well as their social class in early life, and determined that these factors were not indicators of health status in mid-life. Therefore, researchers concluded that social roles are responsible for better health, not that healthier women seek out these roles.
Since the study followed women of a certain age and generation, its results may not be applicable to other populations of women whose values and behaviors may be different. In addition, these findings clearly cannot be applied to men whose social roles bear little resemblance to those of women.
How Does This Affect You?
The findings of this study refute the argument that women can’t have it all: career, marriage, children, and health. They apparently can, just like men. Importantly, the study addresses the question of direction. Good health in mid-life seems to be influenced by the occupation of multiple roles and not the other way around.
It’s important to note that many women with few social roles lead perfectly healthy lives, just as those with multiple roles are not guaranteed favorable health. In fact, for some women, the stress produced by motherhood and marriage can have negative health implications. Irrespective of social roles, health behaviors like diet, exercise, and smoking still have considerable pull when it comes to good health.
Centers for Disease and Prevention
The National Women’s Health Information Center
US Department of Health and Human Services
Lee C, Powers JR. Number of social roles, health, and well-being in three generations of Australian women. International Journal of Behavioral Medicine . 2002; 9(3):195-215.
McMunn A, Bartley M, et al. Life course social roles and women’s health in mid-life: causation or selection? J Epidemiol Community Health . 2006; (60):484-489.
Last reviewed May 2006 by
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