Life’s Hardships Impact Your Wellbeing Even Decades Later, Study Finds


  • Research shows that people dealt difficult life events, especially early on, are far more likely to battle psychiatric problems and social struggles later in life.
  • Individuals raised by cold, emotionally-detached mothers are also at a much greater risk of having mental and social issues as they age.

NORWICH, England — Each person on this planet can only see life through their own eyes, for better or worse. We all have our own individual experiences, memories, hardships, and other life events that have helped shape each one of us into the person we are today. Now, a fascinating new piece of research finds that particularly difficult life events have a profound influence on one’s physical and mental wellbeing years and even decades after the fact.

These hardships, as defined by the study’s authors at East Anglia University, can come in a variety of forms. A few examples include a particularly cold or abusive parent during childhood, financial problems or poverty, poor educational opportunities, losing an unborn child, witnessing or experiencing a natural disaster like a tornado or hurricane, or a flat-out violent event or attack.

According to the research team, individuals who experience “the greatest levels” of these awful events, and all the stress, hardship, and personal loss that comes with them, are five times more likely to report a low quality of life as well as more health and physical problems.

Here’s an especially thought provoking finding from the study: people who grew up with an emotionally cold mother are significantly less likely to enjoy a good quality of life in adulthood, and much more likely to deal with issues like anxiety, social detachment, and other mental health problems.

“Everybody lives a unique life that is shaped by events, experiences and their environment. We know that inequalities in exposure to different events over a lifetime are associated with inequalities in health trajectories, particularly when it comes to events in childhood such as poverty, bereavement or exposure to violence,” comments Dr. Nick Steel, form UEA’s Norwich Medical School in a release.

“While the impact of adverse childhood events is well recognized for children and young people, the negative events that shape our entire life courses are rarely discussed for older people,” he adds. “We wanted to better understand the effects of events over a life course – to find out how adverse events over a person’s lifetime affect their physical, mental and social health in later life. As well as looking at single life events, we also identified groups or patterns of events.”

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The study was conducted via a survey of 7,555 adults over the age of 50 living in England. The survey asked respondents about a variety of life history topics. Some questions asked about their childhood (relationship with parents, reading habits) while others focused on events later in life (military service, unexpected tragedies, etc).

These responses were carefully analyzed in order to identify life event patterns, and researchers also took into account any additional factors that may influence one’s quality of life like ethnicity and socioeconomic status.

“We looked at the life history of each participant and compared it to their quality of life and how well they can perform activities like dressing themselves, bathing, preparing hot meals, doing gardening and money management,” comments lead researcher Oby Enwo, from UEA’s Norwich Medical School. “We also studied whether the participants had a long standing illness, or suffered from anxiety or depression or other psychiatric problems like schizophrenia and psychosis.

“Participants were also asked about their social networks, friendships, and general health,” she continues. “We started to see some really strong patterns and associations emerging between exposure to life events that affect physical and mental well-being in later life.”

Survey respondents were grouped into four categories: those with relatively few hardships in life, those who grew up with an emotionally distant mother, those who experienced intense violence, and those who experienced a high proportion of hardships in life.

“We found that people who had suffered many difficult life events were significantly less likely to experience a good quality of life than those who had lived easier lives,” Enwo explains. “They were three-times more likely to suffer psychiatric problems, twice as likely to be detached from social networks, and twice as likely to have long-standing illness.

“People raised by an emotionally cold mother were also significantly less likely to experience a good quality of life, and were more likely to report psychiatric problems and be detached from social networks, compared to people who had experienced few difficult life events,” she concludes.

All in all, the study’s authors believe that past life events, however far back in the rear window, should be considered by clinicians the world over when treating older patients.

The study is published in the Journal of Public Health.

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