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Intergenerational Perspectives on Health Disparities

Good Relationships With Parents During Childhood as a Buffer to the Common Cold 

Children raised in families of low socioeconomic status (SES) are at higher risk of infectious and cardiovascular diseases throughout their lives, but better parent-child relationships may protect against these health disparities. In a study published in Psychosomatic Medicine, IPR health psychologist Greg Miller and his colleagues test the hypothesis that a positive relationship with parents during childhood acts as a buffer against the increased susceptibility to infectious illness during adulthood, such as the common cold. The researchers examined 176 healthy adults ages 18­–55 who reported their childhood SES and the quality of their childhood relationships with their parents by rating parental care, love and support, lack of conflict, and family cohesiveness. Participants were exposed to an upper respiratory virus and monitored in quarantine for five days for signs of the common cold. Individuals raised in low-SES families were more likely to develop a cold. But this finding was only apparent for individuals who had poor quality relationships. In other words, having positive relationship with one’s parents acted as a “buffer” against the cold risks associated with lower childhood SES. Along with other studies from Miller’s group, these results suggest that positive family relationships can mitigate some of the health disparities associated with low childhood SES. Miller is Louis W. Menk Professor of Psychology. 

Academic Testing and Genetic Factors in Autism 

What can the academic performance of the siblings of those with Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) tell us about the disorder’s genetic component? Research has shown that the broad autism phenotype (BAP)— personality features and language abilities that resemble ASD characteristics without its functional impairments—is found among parents of people with ASD. In the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, communication studies researcher and IPR associate Molly Losh, doctoral student Janna Guilfoyle, and their colleagues investigate whether the BAP is also found among siblings, and if so, what are its features? Using standardized test records, the researchers compared 29 non-ASD siblings of people with ASD to a control group of 88 individuals who did not have a brother or sister with ASD. Additionally, previously gathered data about 43 parents of people with ASD and 23 individuals with ASD were included to connect academic performance and clinical behavioral characteristics. The results show no differences in third-grade reading or math scores between the siblings of people with ASD and the control group. However, the siblings of those with ASD demonstrate more differences with language use and expression, which is similar to the team’s earlier findings about the parents of people with ASD when the parents were children themselves. The analysis also finds that mothers’ BAP characteristics were more strongly connected to their children’s language abilities than those of fathers. Academic achievement tests, which are widespread, may provide more insights into ASD’s genetic causes and inheritability.

Are Personality Traits Associated With Smoking and Alcohol Use During Pregnancy? 

Smoking cigarettes and drinking alcohol during pregnancy can cause harm to the developing fetus, but little is known about how personality affects the use of either substance while pregnant. In Plos One, IPR psychobiologist Emma Adam, professor of obstetrics and gynecology and IPR associate Ann Borders, psychologist and IPR associate Daniel Mroczek, and their colleagues, including former Northwestern postdoctoral fellow Magdalena Leszkostudy the connection between the two. They analyzed data from 2013–15 of a geographically and racially diverse sample of 603 pregnant women, 18 years and older.  The study included smoking and drinking habits before and during pregnancy, as well as information about personality traits based on the Five-Factor Inventory. Most women quit smoking or drinking after learning about the pregnancy, but 45% continued to smoke and 10% continued to drink during pregnancy. The most significant association the researchers found was that women who scored high on openness to experience on the personality inventory were considerably more likely to continue alcohol consumption during pregnancy. The researchers note that the findings can be used in the design of interventions to decrease maternal smoking and alcohol consumption. Adam is Edwina S. Tarry Professor of Human Development and Social Policy.

The Impact of Responsive Parenting on Young Children

Studies show responsive parenting—when parents are nurturing and respond appropriately and regularly to their children's needs—is linked to positive psychosocial, cognitive, and behavioral outcomes. Can it protect children of parents with PTSD from developing mental health symptoms? In Parenting: Science and Practice, developmental psychologist and IPR associate Lauren Wakschlag and her colleagues investigate whether responsive parenting can reduce the impact of mothers' PTSD symptoms on their children's depression, anxiety, disruptive behavior, and stress-related symptoms. The sample of the study included 242 mothers and their preschool-aged children from the NIMH funded MAPS study directed by Wakschlag. The families were multi-ethnic and stratified by poverty status. The study participants attended two lab visits, which included interviews and questionnaires about the mother's self-reported mental symptoms, partner violence, and childhood maltreatment, and the researchers observed the mother-child interactions, some involving stressful tasks. Wakschlag and her colleagues found responsive parenting was significant for buffering against a child's disruptive behavior and stress-related symptoms. However, maternal responsive parenting did not significantly impact the child's depression and anxiety. The study underscores the importance of recognizing maternal mental health as a malleable risk factor for young children. Additionally, the researchers suggest addressing both the parent-child relationship and parental mental health within early childhood mental health treatment to help parents develop responsive parenting techniques.

The Impact of Father Involvement on Future Testosterone Production

Testosterone, or the male reproductive hormone, influences how men devote effort towards reproduction or caregiving. Research has shown that testosterone levels decline in new fathers, which encourages greater caregiving, but also that testosterone responses vary across cultures based upon parenting norms. In the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, IPR anthropologists  Christopher KuzawaThomas McDade, and their colleagues investigate whether having a father present during a son’s childhood affects the son’s testosterone levels as an adult and as a father. The study examined a group of 966 men in the Philippines using data from the CLHNS, an ongoing birth-cohort study begun in 1983. Fathers of each adolescent boy in the study were defined as present or not present during their children’s upbringing. The sons were also asked who they felt was most responsible for their upbringing. Later, after the adolescents became fathers themselves, their testosterone levels were measured. The sons with fathers who were not present during their development had higher testosterone levels after becoming fathers than those whose fathers were present. These results suggest that the experience of adolescent boys with their fathers has lasting impacts on the production of testosterone, which could have intergenerational effects on their own parenting behavior. Kuzawa is the John D. MacArthur Professor of Anthropology, and McDade is the Carlos Montezuma Professor of Anthropology.