New research discovers that maternal values on the importance of family impacts both birth weight and a child’s health status.
Researchers from the University of Southern California determined that regardless of the reality of her own family situation, an expectant mother’s belief in family predicts the birth weight of her baby and whether the child will develop asthma symptoms three years later.
The findings suggest an individual’s culture can influence physical health and provide tangible benefits.
“We know that social support has profound health implications; yet, in this case, this is more a story of beliefs than of actual family support,” said Cleopatra Abdou, Ph.D., assistant professor at the USC Davis School of Gerontology.
In the questionnaire study, 4,633 socioeconomically disadvantaged white, black and Hispanic women, were assessed on their “familism” — that is, their beliefs about familial roles and responsibilities.
Familism was determined by responses to statements such as, “Single moms can do just as well as married parents,” or “It is better for children if their parents are married.”
Researchers then tracked the health of their children and found that, for every one-point increase in familism, there was a 71-gram increase in birth weight. The weight gain was independent of other factors—including the gender of the infant or whether the mother was married.
The weight gain is significant as low birth weight is often associated with health problems later in life. Indeed, higher familism also predicted lower rates of asthma in the children up to three years later.
Though one might expect to see healthier children from mothers who reported strong family support, researchers point out that familism is a cultural measure that exists outside of an individual’s actual circumstances.
“Cultural beliefs and ideals can be distinct from one’s present reality. Familism is about beliefs and ideals within families. That’s why familism is referred to as a cultural resource.
“The cultural resource of familism appears to favorably impact both reproductive health in mothers as well as critical markers of physical health in offspring. That is, the transmission of health from one generation to another,” Abdou said.
Abdou’s findings are published in the journal Social Science & Medicine.
Experts believe the results may help to explain the so-called “Hispanic Paradox” or “epidemiologic paradox, ” an epidemiological finding that immigrant populations in the United States tend to be relatively healthy compared to their peers, despite being poorer.
In general, poorer populations tend to be less healthy than wealthier ones. The epidemiologic paradox diminishes over time, with immigrant populations becoming less and less healthy as they start assimilating into American culture.
Abdou theorizes that U.S.-born populations, in addition to immigrant populations, can benefit in terms of mental and physical health from strong cultural resources, a theory she said is supported by this study.