Childlessness and Your Health: Putting the Risk In Perspective

I’ve read that one woman out of five in America has no biological child whether ‘by choice’ or ‘not by choice’.

This makes me wonder how many women in India are or choose to remain childless.

Not many, especially by choice...

This doesn’t mean that women are not sticking their necks out and deciding to stay child-free out of choice despite what the society says or does.

‘Not by choice’ childless women are also rebelling against the stigma of being childlessness.

One of my friends has been quite sure that she doesn’t want to give birth since she was about 25. She’s 38 now and she still feels the same.

She wants to meet and marry a man who shares her views on being child-free, but she hasn’t found anyone yet, even though she comes from a privileged background and hangs out with many free-thinking, liberal men.

My friend is seen as an odd kind of woman at best and an abnormal deviant who is hell-bent on doing a crime of willful childlessness against feminity.

And she’s not alone, even women who are not able to have kids even though they want to are not let off- they are branded as useless, worthless women who are not able to complete their destiny as women.

It’s a terrible form of abuse.

But how do childless women fare in the health department?  Am really concerned about this as there is a lot of myths and misinformation swirling around about how childlessness can impact a woman’s physical well-being.

Today I am trying to explore the implications of childlessness for health, separating the rice from the chaff, so to speak.  

Childlessness and its impact on a woman’s body

My friend was told repeatedly that not having children could age her prematurely and would cause her uterus to hang out and ovaries to wilt if it’s not used for the purpose they were made.

However, these two reproductive organs do shrink and atrophy post menopause, whether a woman has given birth or not.

A young ovary for example, looks like a ripe cherry and an old ovary looks shrunken and full of wrinkles; and trust me, childlessness has nothing to do with it.

Research studies, however are throwing up some disturbing facts and are linking childlessness with a woman’s risk for early menopause.

A recent study done by University College London and the University of Queensland involving 51000 women has shown that the chance of undergoing menopause before 40 more than doubles for those who have never been pregnant and early menopause, as we know, can cause an increased risk of heart attacks, strokes, type 2 diabetes and osteoporosis.

Childless women and cancer risk

My friend went to a new gynaecologist for a check-up this week and the subject of breast exams came up. The doctor asked her whether she was married and if she had children and when she told him she didn’t, he said, “Well having children and breastfeeding can help reduce the risk of breast cancer.”

And he is right! This is one big definite strike against childlessness.

Women who haven’t given birth are at higher risk for ‘female’ cancers like breast cancer, uterus cancer... and this is no myth but a scientific fact.

Women who have been pregnant are definitely at a lower risk for breast cancer, endometrial cancer, and ovarian cancer.

And, women who have had children and if they also breastfed following pregnancy, have a much lower risk of breast cancer.

This happens because pregnancy and lactation interrupt ovulation for a period of time, and this change in hormonal environment reduces breast-cancer risk.

The endometrium, the lining of the uterus is also sensitive to its hormonal environment, and exposing it to both estrogen and progesterone which happens during pregnancy is associated with a lower endometrial cancer risk.

This makes childless women at a higher risk for endometrial cancer too.

Ok, what next?

Breast cancer risk also goes up in women who use contraceptive pills and other hormonal birth control as a new study has linked these to an increased risk of breast cancer.

On the other hand, contraceptive pills lower the risk of ovarian cancer in women whether they have had children or not. This could be happening because both pregnancy and oral contraceptives decrease the total number of ovulatory cycles in a woman’s lifetime. 

Here’s my advice to my dear friend, if she’s reading – Start getting yourself screened for ‘female’ cancers which means undergoing annual mammograms to look for early stage breast cancer, screening colonoscopies every five years, and an annual pelvic examination and Pap smear to rule out these killers.

In addition, she should also maintain a normal weight since the excess estrogen of obesity increases the risk of endometrial cancer and possibly breast cancer.

All women face cancer risks as they age, but childless women may face a slightly elevated risk, so it’s best to offset it by being proactive about your health.

As far as what other people say about your childlessness, I want women to know that your choice to embrace or forego motherhood is not in any way tied to your worthiness or identity as adults or as women ... and it’s a perfectly valid choice not to have children.

Childbearing is an option, not an obligation... just keep yourself safe from harm.


About the Author

Shikha Gandhi

Shikha Gandhi is a health journalist and a short film maker. She is also a certified Pranic healer and a lover of long walks.