Boys who experience the incarceration of a parent have approximately double the risk of having a heart attack in later adulthood in comparison with boys not exposed to such a childhood trauma, according to a new study by researchers at Virginia Tech and the University of Toronto.
The investigators were so surprised at the magnitude of the link that they later replicated the analyses using a second large survey.
“The strong association we found between incarceration of family members during childhood and later heart attack among men aged 50 and older remained even after adjustments for many known risk factors for heart attack such as age, race, income, education, smoking, physical activity, obesity, high alcohol consumption, diabetes, and depression,” said lead researcher Bradley White, an assistant professor with the Virginia Tech Department of Psychology and a faculty member with the College of Science.
Data came from two national surveys: a 2011 Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS) sample with approximately 15,000 adults, and a 2012 BRFSS sample with more than 22,000 respondents.
Senior co-author Esme Fuller-Thomson at the University of Toronto’s Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work, reported “the findings were very consistent in the two samples indicating a strong association for men and no association for women.”
According to the data, about one in every 50 older adults in either survey reported having a parent incarcerated. The data was unable to determine exactly which family member was incarcerated; however, based on prior studies, White said the vast majority of U.S. prison inmates are men, most of whom are fathers to children under 18. Further, crime details — violent or non-violent — and length of the prison sentences were not available in the survey.
“Such factors might impact the relationship between exposure to family member incarceration and later heart attack risk,” White added.
“Previous studies have indicated that the incarceration of a parent plays havoc with the stability of housing, employment, and parental marital relationships, and result in considerable social and familial stigma,” White said.
“Parental incarceration also is associated with psychosocial maladjustment and mental disorders in children, including delinquency and conduct problems. However, less attention has been paid to the long-term physical health outcomes of the children as they grow up.”
Cortisol, the “flight or fight” hormone, has been linked to the development of cardiovascular disease in separate medical studies and warrants further research.
“Some earlier research suggests childhood adversities may change the ways individuals react to stress across the life course and this can impact the production of cortisol,” said Fuller-Thomsen.
The research was not designed to differentiate why men experience higher odds of heart attack later in life compared to women. However, the findings suggest — but do not yet confirm — reaction and life alterations may be gender-specific, said Fuller-Thomson. She adds that boys appear to be particularly sensitive to adverse childhood experiences.
She reported, “In my earlier research on the long-term consequences of childhood maltreatment, we found childhood sexual abuse was linked to heart attack for men but not women.”
She added that the psychosocial impact on boys whose fathers are incarcerated may be greater than for girls because boys and men are less likely to seek counseling following psychological traumas, and thus may have more difficulty coping.
The researchers hope that future surveys will gather more information — which family member is incarcerated, nature of the crime, and approximate timing of incarceration — to better understand the potential role of these factors in the long-term health outcomes of children with an incarcerated parent.
The findings are published in the Journal of Criminal Justice.
Source: Virginia Tech
Child playing with his mothers hand cuffs photo by shutterstock.