Childhood Loss Linked To Later Health Problems

November 23, 1998

Young children who lose a parent or who have poor family relationships are more likely to have increases in blood pressure and health-damaging responses to stress later in life, according to new research.

Early separation from a parent or lack of parental care and affection may alter the way the body responds to stress, leading to increases in blood pressure and disruptions in hormone release that have been linked with a greater risk of illness and death from a variety of conditions, reports Linda J. Luecken, Ph.D., of Duke University Medical Center, Durham, N.C., in the November-December issue of Psychosomatic Medicine.

"For a child, loss of a parent and lack of a good relationship with a parent may be very similar, and may exert similar effects on their developing physiology," Luecken says.

The researcher examined the stress response in 30 college students who had lost a parent before age 16 and 31 students who had not. She also evaluated the quality of their family relationships using a standard questionnaire. Poor relationships were those characterized by a home environment with high levels of conflict and little affection and support.

The students then performed two stressful tasks, giving an impromptu speech and watching a movie clip depicting the death of a parent. Blood pressure readings and measurements of the stress hormone cortisol were taken before, during, and after the tasks.

Students who had lost a parent or reported poor family relationships had higher blood pressure readings during all phases of the study. Those who had lost a parent had increases in cortisol levels during the speech, while the others displayed decreasing levels. Those with poor family relationships had increases in cortisol during the movie, while the others had decreases.

Luecken, now at the University of Vermont, suggests that early loss or lack of good quality family relationships may have 'permanently' increased overall cardiovascular activity among these students, either through specific changes in physiology or by producing long-term feelings of fear or anxiety.

The pattern of cortisol release among the students was similar to that observed by other researchers in individuals with post-traumatic stress disorder, suggesting that children who experience loss or poor family relationships may develop a similar hormonal response to stress as adults who suffer severe trauma.
Psychosomatic Medicine is the official peer-reviewed journal of the American Psychosomatic Society, published bimonthly. For information about the journal, contact Joel E. Dimsdale, M.D., editor-in-chief, at 619-543-5468.

Posted by the Center for the Advancement of Health. For information about the Center contact Richard Hebert, 202-387-2829.

Center for Advancing Health

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