The kind of parenting you experienced during your childhood predicts how long you will live
Raj Persaud and Peter Bruggen
A new study using a national sample of older people, just published from University College London, has revealed that style of parenting predicts how long your children will live.
The study, from the ‘British Journal of Psychiatry’, published by the Royal College of Psychiatrists, found that those who had experienced poor parenting as children were 49% more likely to die earlier when older adults, compared with those who had received optimal parenting during childhood.
The study, entitled, ‘Parenting style in childhood and mortality risk at older ages: a longitudinal cohort study’, measured two key aspects of parenting – parental care and parental overprotection. Parental care was assessed using three questions – ‘my parents understood my problems and worried about me’, to suffering an emotionally cold mother/father, and ‘parents which made me feel not wanted’.
Parental over-protection was assessed using four questions – ‘my parents let me do things I liked’, ‘liked me to make decisions’, to the other end of the scale which would be, ‘my parents made me feel dependent on them and were overprotective’.
Optimal parenting, according to the authors of this research, Panayotes Demakakos, Demetris Pillas, Michael Marmot and Andrew Steptoe, is characterised by high parental care and affection combined with low parental overprotection.
Previous research has already established that parental coldness and low levels of parental care are consistently associated with mental health conditions in childhood as well as later in adults. Parental over-protection is also connected with future psychiatric problems, but evidence on this association is less consistent.
The large group of 1,964 adults aged 65-79 years who were followed up in the study, suffered a total of 243 deaths over an average follow-up period of 5.4 years.
The risk of death was also increased for people who reported being raised with an intermediate parenting style, which was not the poorest, but also fell short of being optimal.
The study found that adults who reported being raised with a poor parenting style were more likely to live in a household with fewer books at age 10 years, report more depressive symptoms and problems with social relationships, with less social support, compared with those who reported being raised with a good parenting style.
The results also suggest that poor parenting style does not necessarily just cluster with socioeconomic adversity. Childhood and adult socioeconomic position did not explain the association between poor parenting and increased risk of death.
The authors from the Department of Epidemiology and Public Health, University College London, claim their study is the first to examine the association between parenting style and risk of death in a national sample of older people, and point out a previous study of US male medical students also generated findings that concur with this research. That previous study found a significant association between poorer quality of the father–son relationship, and the risk of the son developing cancer.
Childhood experiences of poor parenting style were associated with cancer and other causes of mortality but the authors point out that their finding of a lack of an association between poor parenting style and cardiovascular death is unexpected.
This is particularly so given the importance of stress for cardiovascular disease, but the authors contend that a possible explanation for this finding is that the damaging effect of poor parenting on the circulatory system might be alleviated by the action of protective factors operating at later stages of the life course. For example, the later use of medication for high cholesterol or blood pressure.
This was illustrated in a previous study of older Finnish adults, where parental separation in early childhood was associated with the use of cardiovascular medication, but not cardiovascular deaths.
The authors also point out that earlier age at first period and risky sexual behaviours in daughters, which are risk factors for reproductive cancer in women, are also associated with an unstable childhood environment and poor parenting, and this could be part of the observed associations found in this research.
One possibility is that the mood the older adult was in when they were being interviewed, and this may have biased their own assessment of how happy their childhood was, or how terrible their parents were. The researchers took this into account by adjusting for mood and happiness assessment at the time of the interview, using scales which included items like ‘On balance, I look back on my life with a sense of happiness’ and ‘I enjoy the things that I do’.
It is also worth remembering that older folk tend to remember their past more positively than younger people, and to allow for this effect the authors of the study restricted their analysis to a narrower age range, so that the sample represented only one generation.
This astonishing research refers to the period when the older adult participants in the study had been 15 years old, or younger.
It found that your recall of what parenting was like during your childhood powerfully predicts how long you live, and even what you might die from, over fifty or more years later.
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Dr Raj Persaud’s new novel, Can’t Get You Out Of My Head, is based on a unique UK police unit that really does protect Buckingham Palace from fixated obsessives. The psychological thriller poses the question: Is love the most dangerous emotion?