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Having boys, rather than girls, appears to slightly increase the rate at which parents’ cognitive abilities decline with age. This is the warning of a longitudinal study of thousands of US parents undertaken by medical psychologist Dr Katrin Wolfova of the Charles University in Prague and her colleagues. The team suggest that boys may age their parents faster because they are socialised to be more active — unlike girls, who tend to be encouraged to display sociability.

Dr Wolfova said: “Our results do not support previous research that suggested an association between having sons and brain health advantages in mothers.

“Our findings revealed that having sons instead of daughters may negatively impact cognition in the long term for both mothers and fathers.”

In their investigation, the researchers analysed data on 13,222 US adults — each aged 50 or higher, and with at least one child — that had signed up to the University of Michigan’s Health and Retirement Study (HRS).

This longitudinal study which began in 1992, its initiators said, “provides an invaluable and growing body of multidisciplinary data that researchers can use to address important questions about the challenges and opportunities of ageing”.

The analysed included both the biological children of study participants as well as adopted and step-children.

Dr Wolfova and her team studied the rate at which the parent’s cognitive abilities declined over time, as assessed by a series of tests taken every other year for up to 18 years.

Cognition, the researchers explained, was assessed as a sum of scores from immediate and delayed word recall tests, subtraction exercises and a backwards counting test.

The team said: “In our analytic sample of parents, a total of 82.3 percent of respondents had at least one son and 61.6 percent of respondents were female.”

The results indicated that raising boys may exacerbate mental decline with age.

The team explained: “We found that cognition deteriorated faster in mothers and fathers of sons than in those without any sons.

Furthermore, when compared to those who only had daughters, the results indicated that cognitive decline was faster still among parents of multiple sons.

The researchers added: “This difference was modest compared to the overall cognitive decline over time, but persisted when accounting for sociodemographic and health factors.

“Although the specific mechanisms linking this relationship remain to be elucidated, our results suggest that the pathways are rather of a social than biological character, as we observed similar trends in mothers as well as fathers.

“For example, daughters are more likely to show positive affect and sociability, while sons have higher activity levels.”

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According to Dr Wolfova and her colleagues, their findings are in line with evidence from studies of non-human animals, which has shown an association between rasiging male offspring and accelerated maternal ageing.

They said: “These findings have been explained by higher demands for maternal resources during pregnancy with male offspring as well as greater energy investment after birth.

“Similar pathways have been proposed in humans. Male newborns have higher average birthweight, and birth of a son is followed by a longer birth interval.”

The full findings of the study were published in the Journal of Psychiatric Research.

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