PITTSBURGH — A messy divorce can lead to stressful and upsetting situation for all parties involved, especially children. Previous research has found that divorce can lead to cognitive delays in children, but a new study finds that children whose parents split up and cut off communication from one another are significantly more susceptible to having colds as adults.
Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University recruited 201 healthy adults between the ages of 18 and 55 from varying familial situations to take part in the study. The participants agreed to be quarantined and exposed to a virus that causes the common cold in humans so that the authors could try and make a correlation between one’s immune system strength and their parents’ marital status.
The results showed that those who grew up with parents who divorced or split up and were not on speaking terms with one another were more than three times more likely to develop a cold than those from more stable backgrounds.
Interestingly, those whose parents split up but remained on cordial grounds were no more likely to contract a cold than those whose parents were still married.
“Our results target the immune system as an important carrier of the long-term negative impact of early family conflict,” says Sheldon Cohen, one of the co-authors and a professor of psychology at the university, in a news release. “They also suggest that all divorces are not equal, with continued communication between parents buffering deleterious effects of separation on the health trajectories of the children.”
The research team believes the results stem from heightened inflammation in response to infection.
“Early life stressful experiences do something to our physiology and inflammatory processes that increase risk for poorer health and chronic illness,” says co-author Michael Murphy, a psychology postdoctoral research associate at the university. “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.”
The participants were monitored for five days after exposure to the virus to ensure their condition didn’t worsen to a stronger respiratory infection. The study’s findings were published in June in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.