Study calls parental care key factor in child's health
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A new study has found that children raised in poverty were less likely to develop certain chronic diseases in adulthood if they had loving, attentive mothers from a young age.
Disadvantaged children grow up with stresses that can hurt their physical development and make them vulnerable to infection and disease for the rest of their lives. In adulthood, this often leads to metabolic syndrome -- high blood pressure, impaired regulation of blood sugar and fats, fat around the waist -- that are precursors to diabetes, heart disease and other chronic conditions.
Yet a significant minority of poor children avoid these negative outcomes as adults, and a team of researchers led by psychologist Gregory Miller at the University of British Columbia wanted to know why. So they looked at two common explanations, upward mobility and early parental nurturing to see if they related to metabolic problems later in life.
Their findings, to be published in next month's issue of the journal Psychological Science, showed that moving up the economic ladder in adulthood did not make these particular health problems less likely. What did improve the odds for avoiding metabolic syndrome, however, was a mother who paid close attention to her children's well-being when they were small, who was affectionate, caring and had time for them.
The results were not a complete surprise, said Mr. Miller, who has a doctorate in clinical psychology from UCLA, completed a clinical internship at Western Psychiatric Institute & Clinic and a post-doctoral fellowship in health psychology at Carnegie Mellon University.
"There's plenty of evidence on how kids in poverty are at risk for educational and mental health problems later in life, and lots of evidence that if a parent, teacher or other adult takes a great interest in them, it has lots of off-setting effects.
"What's new here is that this is all happening in the context of physical health problems that are so far away in time from the experience of childhood poverty and maternal warmth."
The study analyzed data from 1,215 adults (mean age 46) who participated in a 1995-96 nationwide study called Midlife in the United States.
Ten years later, more than 1,200 of them returned for physical exams that measured waist circumference and blood pressure, glucose and lipids, or molecules that contain fat.
Their socioeconomic status was gauged based on their parents' education. Parental nurturing was measured from a questionnaire that rated both parents on such things as how understanding they were and how much attention they gave their children.
Controlling for current age, sex, race and income, researchers found that the better off the child's family, the better the adult's health. When neither parent in the household had a high school diploma, participants were 1.4 times as likely to have metabolic syndrome as those raised by two college graduates.
The exceptions were those with nurturing mothers.
"The message is that the environments kids grow up in have implications for their health many years later," Mr. Miller said. "We are talking about people from disadvantaged backgrounds developing metabolic syndrome 50 or 60 years later when they reach the time of life when those conditions typically develop. Yet if they had a high level of nurturing, particularly from the mother, it can offset most of that risk."
This information, he said, could have implications for public policy.
"There might be things we can do as a society to make it easier for parents to be the kind of nurturing caregivers they want to be. For example, high-quality day care that's affordable for working families, more generous family leave policies to allow more than 12 weeks off after birth or more time off to care for a sick child."
Collaborating on the study were Edith Chen, also of UBC; Margie E. Lachman of Brandeis University; and Tara L. Gruenewald, Arun S. Karlamangla and Teresa E. Seeman of UCLA.
First Published September 26, 2011 12:00 am