MONDAY, March 22, 2004 (HealthDayNews) -- Abundant parental support during childhood leads to better mental and physical health throughout adulthood, a new study finds.
Conversely, a lack of love is associated with depression and chronic health problems, says Benjamin A. Shaw, an assistant professor of social behavior and community health at the University at Albany School of Public Health in Rensselaer, N.Y.. He is lead author of the study, published in the March issue of Psychology and Aging.
"What I found is a large portion of the association can be explained by what we call psychosocial resources -- the idea is that adults who receive a lot of support from their parents early in life tend to have higher self-esteem, better social relationships, and a better sense of personal control."
Those qualities, in turn, "help people cope with stressful situations, help them problem solve without turning to problem behaviors such as smoking and drinking," Shaw says.
For the study, Shaw and his colleagues analyzed responses from 2,905 adults, aged 25 to 74, who participated in the National Survey of Midlife Development in the United States. The respondents were asked about how available emotional support was from their mothers and fathers during their growing years.
They were asked such questions as how much they could confide in parents and how much love and affection they remembered getting.
If there was a lack of parental support, the adults were more likely to report depressive symptoms and chronic health conditions such as high blood pressure, arthritis, and urinary problems. The connection persisted into early old age.
The association seems to be more strongly linked to mental health than physical health problems, but Shaw says more physical problems may show up as the adults age.
Shaw says his study is not the first to show the association, but the sample size is larger and less specialized.
While many other studies have looked at only mental health outcome, his data adds to the smaller amount of research on physical health outcomes, he adds.
The data didn't quantify the association, Shaw says. There is no way to say, for instance, that a lack of support during childhood was tied to a threefold or fourfold increase in a mental or physical problem in adulthood.
"I think the biggest surprise is that the relationship [between early support and health] persists at these older ages," Shaw says. "The idea that the level of parental support [during childhood] still sort of matters, even up to age 75, is kind of surprising, I think. You'd think these effects would diminish, but they really didn't."
Another expert praises the study. "I think it was a terrific idea to make this connection," says Barry Ginsberg, a child and family psychologist in Doylestown, Penn. He believes the association has to do with security. "If you grow up in an environment in which you feel low anxiety, a sense of safety and the emotional connection you get out of that, the attachment component is probably the most significant aspect of this."
"These early relationships define how you understand yourself and relate to others," Ginsberg adds. "Good skills in those areas can help protect you from physical and mental problems."