A new study shows that nurturing mothers have a positive impact on their children’s physical health in middle age.
In a recent study published in the journal Psychological Science, Brandeis University psychologist Margie Lachman, Ph.D., and colleagues found that while children raised in families with low socioeconomic status frequently go on to have high rates of chronic illness in adulthood, a sizable minority remain healthy throughout their lives.
The new research sought to examine if parental nurturing could mitigate the effects of socioeconomic disadvantages in childhood.
“The literature is very clear that people who are low in socioeconomic status have worse health than their same-age counterparts,” said Lachman. “Modifiable factors play an important role, and we are realizing that things can be done to try to minimize these health disparities.”
Money and health care access are part of what is known as the social gradient in health, she says, but numerous studies show they play a very small role, as countries with universal health care have the same social gradient.
The researchers found that the level of education attained by the parents is a more reliable indicator — people who have a college education do well in many areas, such as physical health, psychological well-being and cognitive function.
The team is looking for ways to reduce the differences, as not all lower-socioeconomic status people fare the same — some, Lachman said, are physically and cognitively active and have good social support, resources which seems to reduce their risks for poorer functioning.
The study looked at socioeconomic status during childhood and whether it predicted poor health many years later. It also examined risk factors for cardiovascular disease and diabetes within the context of a large survey.
More than 1,000 members of the nationally representative sample were brought to a medical clinic for an overnight stay and samples were taken to assess pre-clinical indicators of disease. To qualify for a metabolic syndrome diagnosis, which is a precursor to coronary artery disease, Type 2 diabetes and stroke, adults had to have central adiposity (large waist circumference) and at least two of the following: high blood pressure, raised triglycerides, raised fasting glucose levels, or low levels of high-density lipoprotein (a specific cholesterol reading).
The researchers note that emerging literature reveals that many of the health problems in midlife, including metabolic syndrome, can be traced back to what happened in early childhood. The stresses of childhood can leave a biological residue that shows up in midlife, said Lachman. Yet, among those at risk for poor health, adults who had nurturing mothers in childhood fared better in physical health in midlife.
“Perhaps it’s a combination of empathy, the teaching of coping strategies or support for enrichment,” said Lachman. “We want to understand what it is about having a nurturing mother that allows you to escape the vulnerabilities of being in a low socioeconomic status background and wind up healthier than your counterparts.”
The study has followed the same 1,205 people for over a decade. Nurturance was assessed with data and included questions such as: How much did she understand your problems and worries and how much time and attention did she give you when you needed it?
“We would like to try to use this information to bolster vulnerable families who are at risk for not doing well,” said Lachman. “Teaching them parenting skills to show children concern for their welfare, how to cope with stress, that they have some control over their destinies, and how to engage in health-promoting behaviors such as good diet and exercise — the things that could protect against metabolic syndrome.”
The study also showed that a father’s nurturing did not contribute to better health.
“It could be that the results are tied to the particular cohort studied, and there may be generational differences,” said Lachman. “With this cohort, people who are now in midlife, fathers weren’t typically very involved. Paternal nurturance may play more of a role for the children of these midlife fathers who, in contrast, are more involved in the lives of their children and perhaps more nurturant.”
As the study continues the researchers will be able to look at new generations of middle-aged adults who have had different parenting experiences, she added.
“The fact that we can see these long-term effects from childhood into midlife is pretty dramatic,” Lachman said. “Yet this study is just one small piece of this overall puzzle. The more modifiable factors that can be identified, the more likely it is that we will be able to intervene successfully to optimize health.”
Source: Brandeis University