A new study has found that children raised in poverty were less likely to develop certain chronic diseases in adulthood if they had loving, attentive mothers from a young age.
Disadvantaged children grow up with stresses that can hurt their physical development and make them vulnerable to infection and disease for the rest of their lives. In adulthood, this often leads to metabolic syndrome -- high blood pressure, impaired regulation of blood sugar and fats, fat around the waist -- that are precursors to diabetes, heart disease and other chronic conditions.
Yet a significant minority of poor children avoids these negative outcomes as adults, and a team of researchers led by psychologist Gregory Miller at the University of British Columbia wanted to know why. They looked at two common explanations, upward mobility and early parental nurturing.
Their findings, to be published in next month's issue of the journal Psychological Science, showed that moving up the economic ladder in adulthood did not make these particular health problems less likely. What did improve the odds for avoiding metabolic syndrome, however, was a mother who paid close attention to her children's well-being when they were small, who was affectionate, caring and had time for them.
"What's new here is that this is all happening in the context of physical health problems that are so far away in time from the experience of childhood poverty and maternal warmth," said Miller.
The study analyzed data from 1,215 adults (mean age 46) who participated in a 1995-96 nationwide study called Midlife in the United States.
Ten years later, more than 1,200 of them returned for physical exams and a questionnaire on parental nurturing. Their socioeconomic status was gauged based on their parents' education.
Controlling for current age, sex, race and income, researchers found that the better off the child's family, the better the adult's health. When neither parent in the household had a high school diploma, participants were 1.4 times as likely to have metabolic syndrome as those raised by two college graduates.
The exceptions were those with nurturing mothers.
If youngsters from disadvantaged backgrounds "had a high level of nurturing, particularly from the mother, it can offset most of that risk," Miller said., adding that the information could have public-policy implications.
"There might be things we can do as a society to make it easier for parents to be the kind of nurturing caregivers they want to be."
(Contact Sally Kalson at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.scrippsnews.com.)