Again, good parenting changes children’s brains and predicts better health later in life

by Apr 13, 2012Brain, Health, Stress, Trauma0 comments

Approx. Reading Time: 3 minutes
In recent years there has been a mass of research pointing to how nurturing and attuned parenting is innoculatory for later physical as well as mental health. Three studies that have come out recently again back this up with yet more evidence.

Research led by Dr. Joan L. Luby and colleagues at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis recruited children of about 10 years old who had been in an earlier study. In this early study levels of incipient mental health issues were found in some children but not in others. In addition the mothers had all been asked to undertake some tasks with their child which would have been somewhat stressful. For example the children were watched interacting with a parent while the parent was finishing a job, and the child knew they were going to get a rewarding gift at the end but that they had to wait until their parent had finished.  The test was designed to simulate the kind of real everyday stressors typical in parenting and what was measured was how well the parent could support and help the child. The tasks were videotaped and scored later by scorers who were blind to any issues in the family.  Fascinatingly when the children’s brains were scanned about 5 years later, those who had been scored as receiving more nurturing and attuned parenting had hippocampuses about 10% bigger on average than those whose experiences were less good. This was a powerful result. The hippocampus is a vital part of the brain, central to memory and also involved in stress reactivity and previous research has shown that early stress can reduce hippocampal volume.

Another recent study published in the Journal of Psychological Science by Margie Lachman and colleagues. What was found in this study of over 1200 representative subjects was that those who had lower socioeconomic status had higher levels of a range of physiological symptoms in detailed medical examinations. What was slightly different about this study was that it was socioeconomic status in childhood that was being measured, not their adult status, and also there was a careful examination of factors which might have led to better outcomes in some of the subjects. The examinations screened for symptoms of coronary heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and various other health issues. It has long been known that social class, poverty and stressful early environments are predictive of health problems later in life. What this study found, which  probably won’t surprise people, is that those who were doing better on just about all scores seemed to have had more empathic and nurturing parenting when they were younger. So once again it was good, attuned, empathic nurturing that inoculated against later risks of serious health problems.

This study links very well with another recently published one that looked at the effects of serious stress on later heart problems. In this Dr. Beth Cohen  and fellow researchers at the University of California, San Francisco looked at nearly 1000 adults aged between 45 and 90 who had in the past some signs of heart problems but who were stable at the time of assessment. An assessment was made of how much they had been affected by up to 18 different but serious kinds of traumatic episodes. They were then assessed very carefully medically and an absolutely clear link was  between the extent of their lifetime stress exposure and known clinical markers for risk of heart disease, such as levels of inflammation. The subjects were recently re-tested 5 years later and the same result was found. Stress early in life predicts later cardiovascular health problems, even after screening out psychiatric issues like depression or PTSD.

The studies keep piling in about the very deleterious effects of bad early experiences and the importance of early intervention and support. This as ever raises both political questions (eg what are the effects of stressful environments, violent neighbourhoods and increased social division and inequality?) as well as questions about the need for interventions that can make a difference on the ground.

Chen, E. & Miller, G.E., 2012. ‘Shift-and-Persist’ Strategies Why Low Socioeconomic Status Isn’t Always Bad for Health. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 7(2), pp.135–158.

Luby, J.L. et al., 2012. Maternal support in early childhood predicts larger hippocampal volumes at school age. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 109(8), pp.2854–2859.

O’Donovan, A. et al., 2012. Lifetime exposure to traumatic psychological stress is associated with elevated inflammation in the Heart and Soul Study. Brain, behavior, and immunity.

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