The Silent Treatment Divorce Can Get Kids Sick Decades Later

The Silent Treatment Divorce Can Get Kids Sick Decades Later

Adults whose parents separated during their childhood have an increased risk for poorer health, but experts haven’t understood why.

The findings of a new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences show that adults whose parents separated and didn’t speak to each other during their childhoods were three times as likely to develop a cold when intentionally exposed to a common cold virus than adults whose parents had remained together or separated but continued to communicate.

“…family stress during childhood may influence a child’s susceptibility to disease 20-40 years later.”

“Early life stressful experiences do something to our physiology and inflammatory processes that increase risk for poorer health and chronic illness,” says Michael Murphy, a psychology postdoctoral research associate in the Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Carnegie Mellon University.

“This work is a step forward in our understanding of how family stress during childhood may influence a child’s susceptibility to disease 20-40 years later.”

For the study, researchers quarantined 201 healthy adults experimentally exposed them to a virus that causes a common cold, and monitored them for five days for the development of a respiratory illness.

Adults whose parents lived apart and never spoke during their childhood were more than three times as likely to develop a cold compared to those from intact families. The increased risk was due, in part, to heightened inflammation in response to a viral infection.


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There was no increased risk for people whose parents were separated when they were children but communicated with each other.

“Our results target the immune system as an important carrier of the long-term negative impact of early family conflict,” says Sheldon Cohen, professor of psychology. “They also suggest that all divorces are not equal, with continued communication between parents buffering deleterious effects of separation on the health trajectories of the children.”

The National Center for Complimentary and Integrative Health, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, the National Institutes of Health, and the Pennsylvania Department of Health funded the research.

Source: Carnegie Mellon University

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