Background: Helle et al. (2000. Sons reduced maternal longevity in preindustrial humans. Science, 296, 1085) argued that giving birth to sons reduced maternal longevity in pre-industrial societies due to higher physiological costs of bearing sons and the elevated testosterone levels observed in mothers carrying male foetuses. Aim: The present study examined this hypothesis using a more comprehensive dataset and evaluated the merits of the statistical approach used in previous studies to identify the cost of giving birth to sons in terms of maternal old-age longevity.
Subjects and methods: The analysis in Helle et al. (2002. Sons reduced maternal longevity in preindustrial humans. Science 296, 1085) was extended by using a considerably larger dataset of preindustrial Swedish women, and with careful consideration paid to methodological problems of sample selection and omitted variable bias. We argue that the previous literature has underestimated the difficulties in quantifying the trade-off between parity and longevity due to unobserved heterogeneity in health. However, under less restrictive assumptions, one can estimate the marginal impact of a son for a fixed family size.
Results: No evidence was found of a negative relative impact of sons. Neither was any evidence found in favour of the male-biased intra-household resource competition hypothesis proposed elsewhere in the literature, despite the poverty of the study population. These results are robust to a wide range of specifications tested.
Conclusion: The failure to reproduce earlier findings and the fact that studies in this area of research seem to continue to yield conflicting results warrant much caution in discussing and evaluating results. It is likely that the negative effect of sons, if it existed, only manifested itself under conditions that are not yet fully understood. We also argue that the previous literature on this topic has not fully acknowledged the inference problems associated with omitted variable bias and sample selection.