Contact: Sheldon Cohen, PhD
For Release: Immediately
Growing up with parents with few assets, a low income and little education raises adults’ risk for developing viral infections such as colds, and even correlates with a shorter lifespan, research shows. But does it matter if this was a loving, supportive childhood home where kids felt cared for and a sense of family unity?
It certainly does, suggests a pathbreaking new study that finds a positive childhood environment can curb or even erase the well-documented link between growing up with parents with limited assets and a greater lifetime susceptibility to the viruses that cause the common cold. The new study, published online ahead-of-print, will appear in a forthcoming issue of Psychosomatic Medicine, journal of the American Psychosomatic Society.
Participants were 176 healthy Pittsburgh area adults, 18 to 55 years old. At the start, they had physical exams and filled out demographic questionnaires, as well as a survey on perceived stress. Everyone also had an antibody test to make sure they hadn’t already developed immunity to the cold virus they’d be exposed to during the study. In addition, researchers cultured participants’ nasal secretions to confirm they didn’t have a cold going into the study.
All participants were then isolated in a local hotel for six days. While in isolation, they reported on their childhood socioeconomic status (SES) from ages one to 18, inferred from whether or not their parents owned a home, a widely used marker for greater income and assets. They also filled out questionnaires about how much parental care, love and support they’d received during childhood, and the conflict level and extent of family unity in their childhood homes. Everyone also was asked about whether their parents had divorced before their own 19th birthday, and the number of siblings they had grown up with. Finally, participants filled out a standard questionnaire that assesses emotional stability.
Everyone was then given nasal drops with a virus that causes the common cold. (Each of them was paid $1,000 for their trouble.) For the next five quarantined days, researchers checked participants’ nasal secretions for the virus and even weighed nasal mucous, as well as measuring their congestion levels. Four weeks after the quarantine, a check of antibodies in the participants’ blood confirmed whether or not they had been infected by the virus. Colds were defined as the combination of being infected by the virus and having cold symptoms.
The findings were clear-cut, says study leader Sheldon Cohen, PhD, Professor of Psychology at Carnegie Mellon University. For adults with poor parental relationships in childhood, the lower their SES when they were kids, the more likely they were to catch a cold as an adult; for adults with good parental relationships during childhood, there was no link between their family’s SES and their adult risk of catching cold. So how might caring parents provide a buffer against the virus, even if they are resource-poor? Cohen suggests several possibilities.
++ May have kids who surmise that people can be trusted. “They read less threat in the social world,” says Cohen, so they suffer less from interpersonal stress that triggers amplified physical reactions— blood pressure spikes, unhealthy stress hormone patterns— that can weaken the immune system.
++ May lead children to develop stronger adult relationships that provide social support, which is known to buffer people against life stress producing disease.
++ May put effort into promoting healthy behaviors, such as not smoking, not drinking too much alcohol or taking drugs. These long-term habits help build a healthy immune system.
Of course, the virus uppermost in our minds now is the Novel Corona Virus. The common cold virus “has some similarities to COVID but lots of differences as well,” Cohen notes. A major pathway leading to both illnesses is the production of proteins that create inflammation.
“Our work indicates that low childhood SES is associated with an increased risk of adults exposed to a virus developing infections and symptoms of disease, and that good early parent-child relationships protect against the risk associated with low childhood SES. It is certainly worth investigating whether these factors play a similar role in the progression of COVID-19,” says Cohen.
Study Link: https://doi.org/10.1097/PSY.0000000000000818
Cold Project Link: www.commoncoldproject.com
The American Psychosomatic Society (APS) (http://www.psychosomatic.org), founded in 1942, is an international multidisciplinary academic society that conducts an annual scientific meeting and educational programs. Psychosomatic Medicine is its scientific journal. The membership of over 700 is composed of academic scientists and clinicians in medicine, psychiatry, epidemiology, health psychology and allied health services. The mission of the APS is “to advance and integrate the scientific study of biological, psychological, behavioral and social factors in health and disease.”