Wednesday, March 24, 2004

Here’s one more reason for strong family ties: Good parenting may equal good health later in life.

“People with abundant parental support during childhood are likely to have relatively good health through adulthood,” notes a study of 2,905 persons released by the American Psychological Association on Monday.

Those who lacked such support “are likely to have poorer health as adults,” according to the study. The findings were reported in this month’s issue of Psychology and Aging.

Research has long showed that tender, consistent parents — those who made “gestures or acts of caring, assistance and acceptance” — produced children with fewer psychological or physical problems as they grew up.

But this is the first time that investigators found that the positive influences of kindhearted and responsible parents “persist throughout adulthood into old age,” spanning “several decades.”

Neglected children had “increased risk of depressive symptoms and chronic health conditions in adulthood,” according to the study, which was conducted at the State University of New York at Albany (SUNY) and the University of Michigan.

The 27 vexing health conditions were wide-ranging and numerous, and included asthma, arthritis, thyroid disease, urinary problems, high blood pressure and diabetes.

Benjamin Shaw, an assistant professor at the SUNY School of Public Health, analyzed responses from the 2,905 adults, ages 25 to 74, who were asked to recall their old family atmosphere and rate their parents’ performance.

They were asked six positive questions: Did your parents understand you and “teach you about life,” and provide “love and affection,” security, a trusting atmosphere and “a good upbringing”?

The survey participants also were asked to report on four negative aspects of their childhood. Were they criticized, annoyed, let down or subject to unreasonable demands by their parents?

They then were asked to report on any depression, self-doubt and chronic illnesses that plagued them in later years.

Mr. Shaw says his analysis reflects the long-term effect of parent-child relationships, noting that the roots of good health can be found in a sound mind — one fostered by an affectionate childhood.

“Specifically, early parental support appears to shape people’s sense of personal control, self-esteem and family relationships, which in turn affect adult depressive symptoms and physical health,” he said.

The researchers conceded that childhood recollections are not an exact science. Memories among the older respondents, for example, might not have been entirely accurate. The respondents also might have been given childhood support from someone outside the family as well.

The researchers nonetheless call the findings “far-reaching” for physicians evaluating who is at elevated risk for ill health in later life.

“Health practitioners may need to cast a much broader net that encompasses earlier life conditions dating as far back as childhood,” Mr. Shaw said.

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