Later in life, fathers have poorer heart health compared to non-fathers, according to findings from the first longitudinal, multi-ethnic US study to look at fatherhood and cardiovascular health.

Although there were variations based on the age at which men become fathers and on the ethnic background of participants, it seems that the stress and responsibilities of parenting might make it more difficult to maintain healthy heart habits.

The US researchers suggest their study highlights areas where dads might be better supported by their communities and by healthcare professionals.

"The changes in heart health we found suggest that the added responsibility of childcare and the stress of transitioning to fatherhood may make it difficult for men to maintain a healthy lifestyle, such as a healthy diet and exercise," says the first author of the study, internist and pediatrician John James Parker from Northwestern University.

Parker and colleagues looked at data collected on 2,814 men aged 45–84, who were monitored for up to 18 years.

Heart health was assessed through a combination of self-reporting on diet, exercise, and smoking habits as well as recorded measurements of body mass index, blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood glucose levels.

As well as heart health typically being poorer for fathers compared with those who had never been parents, it was worse for men who had become dads at 25 or younger – especially for Black and Hispanic men – and this group had higher death rates too.

A range of factors could be playing into these statistics, according to the team behind the study. Younger dads may be less financially stable, for example, and less likely to have flexibility when it comes to taking time off work.

"A lot of times we focus on the health of mothers and children, and we don't even think of fathers, but their health has a major influence on their family," says Parker.

"To improve the health of families, we need to consider the multi-directional relationship among mothers, fathers, other caregivers and children."

The data doesn't prove direct cause and effect, and the health differences between the groups weren't huge – though they were statistically significant. With heart disease the leading cause of death among US men, it's an association that's worth investigating.

Interestingly, when factoring in all causes, fathers' overall mortality rate was lower than that of non-fathers.

After the results were age-adjusted, the only racial and ethnic subgroup with a lower rate of death among fathers was Black men. It suggests becoming a father might be protective for Black men, perhaps by promoting a healthier lifestyle.

As the researchers point out, the health of fathers not only affects the men themselves but also the families around them. Some of the changes that come along with fatherhood might be inevitable, but not all will be.

"We really need to study fathers as a unique population and track men's health outcomes as they become fathers," says Parker. "Cardiovascular health is especially important since the health behaviors and factors are all modifiable."

The research has been published in AJPM Focus.