Motherhood, Medicine, and Mortality

The emotional bond between mother and child plays a powerful role in emotional health and well-being as children grow into adults, but can it have an effect on whether they develop heart problems?   An intriguing new study by a team of researchers at the University of Minnesota suggests that it can.   The study, which was recently published in the journal Health Psychology, uses data taken from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescents to Adult Health (also known as Add Health to determine the impact of a strong maternal bond on whether or not participants develop cardiovascular problems later in life. 

Add Health is a longitudinal study which follows thousands of participants beginning in early adolescence and continuing through to middle adulthood.   Along with data on emotional and physical well-being, the research also looks at factors such as family relationships, romantic relationships, and ties to the community.  Conducted in a series of "waves" starting with the 1994-1995 school year and continuing through to the latest wave in 2016 to 2018, the Add Health research project has already led to hundreds of research articles on a wide range of different topics relating to how emotional and physical health changes across the lifespan.

In this latest study, lead researcher Jenalee Doom of the University of Minnesota's Institute of Child Development and her co-researchers used Add Health data to assess how maternal warmth during adolescence affected later health.   They focused on cardiovascular disease (CVD) since it is now the leading cause of death for men and women.   Not only does it account for over two thousand deaths a day in the United States alone,  but 40.5 percent of all Americans are expected to have some form of CVD by 2030.    This makes identifying those factors that can increase or decrease risk of CVD more critical than ever.  

But why would maternal warmth during childhood help protect against heart disease later in life?  Research studies have already found a range of biomarkers associated with CVD that appear to be influenced by a strong maternal bond in childhood.  These include blood pressure, heart rate, cortisol, cholesterol, glucose, and insulin levels.   Adults who experienced secure attachments to their mothers as infants were also less likely to experience inflammation-linked conditions such as hypertension, stroke, diabetes, and heart disease than their counterparts who were insecurely attached as infants.    A  35-year follow-up study by Gary Schwartz and Linda Russek found that 91 percent of men without a warm relationship with their mother during early adulthood developed chronic disease (heart disease, hypertension, alcoholism) later in life.   For those men who did have a warm relationship, only 45 percent suffered from chronic illness decades later.

To read more, check out my new Psychology Today blog post.


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