Children whose parents divorce acrimoniously are more likely to catch colds in later life according to new research.
A team from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh examined the susceptibility to infection of 201 adults by quarantining them, exposing them to a virus which causes the common cold, and then monitoring them for five days to see whether or not they developed an infection.
They then examined the backgrounds of the participants and found a significant link between those who had experienced an acrimonious divorce during their childhoods and susceptibility to illness.
Participants whose parents had been so at loggerheads that they had been unable to speak to each other following separation were more than three times as likely to catch a cold after being exposed to the virus. Their bodies produced greater levels of inflammation in response – a lasting legacy of childhood exposure to stress suggested the researchers.
Michael Meacher of Carnegie Mellon explained:
“Early life stressful experiences do something to our physiology and inflammatory processes that increase risk for poorer health and chronic illness. 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.”
Fellow researcher Professor Sheldon Cohen said the findings indicated that any psychological damage associated with parental divorce had more to do with behaviour and circumstances than the simple fact of separation. Those parents who made the effort to remain on speaking terms with their ex-partners were, without realising, protecting their children’s health he noted.
The study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.