Supportive relationships in childhood leads to longer lives

Summary: Closer social relationships in childhood and being raised by a family with higher socioeconomic status was linked to people being more optimistic during midlife and increased chances of living to an older age. Those who were more disadvantaged growing up and experienced psychosocial stressors tended to experience more stressful events during midlife and had an increased risk of early death.

Source: Boston University School of Medicine

After years of generalized theories and hypothesis, research has finally pinpointed certain aspects of childhood experience linked to people living longer.

Individuals raised in families with higher socioeconomic status were more optimistic in midlife, and in turn, lived longer. Those who experienced more psychosocial stressors, such as parental death, frequent moves and harsh discipline, tended to encounter more stressful life events in midlife, and had greater risk of dying.

Prior research has shown that adverse childhood experiences are associated with higher mortality risk. However, the effects appear to be driven by a small proportion of individuals who experienced multiple “hits” of severe stressors, such as physical abuse and domestic violence. Little is known about the potential effects of milder but more common stressors and the potential benefits of favorable childhood experiences on longevity. How different aspects of childhood experiences come to influence life span has rarely been studied. These questions are addressed in a new study in the journal Psychology and Aging.

The study involved 1,042 men who had been followed since 1961 in the Normative Aging Study. Three aspects of childhood experiences, including socioeconomic status, psychosocial stressors and presence of close relationships were assessed at study entry and in 1995. Optimism, life satisfaction, stressful life events and negative affect in midlife were assessed from 1985-91. Mortality status was tracked through 2016.

A key finding was that men who recalled having more childhood stressors also tended to experience more stressors as adults, and in turn, had greater risk of dying. For example, when comparing men who had five versus one childhood psychosocial stressors, those with more childhood stressors had a three percent greater risk of dying that was due to having more adulthood stressors. These findings suggest that a continuous pattern of stressor exposure from childhood to midlife may act as a precursor to reduced lifespan.

This shows two little girls playing

The researchers also looked at whether and how favorable aspects of childhood experiences may contribute to longevity. In particular, men raised in families with higher socioeconomic status tended to report higher levels of optimism and life satisfaction in midlife, and in turn, had greater likelihood of having longer lives. These findings suggest that optimism and life satisfaction are resilience pathways which convey the benefits of childhood socioeconomic resources onto longer lives.

“Our findings offer novel evidence on unique and shared pathways linking specific dimensions of early life experiences to longevity,” said corresponding author Lewina Lee, PhD, clinical research psychologist at the National Center for PTSD at VA Boston and assistant professor of psychiatry at Boston University School of Medicine. “We hope that our research will stimulate further work to identify and intervene on factors which lie on the pathways linking childhood experiences to later-life health.”


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Original Research: Closed access
“The long arm of childhood experiences on longevity: Testing midlife vulnerability and resilience pathways”. Lewina Lee et al.
Psychology and Aging doi:10.1037/pag0000394.


The long arm of childhood experiences on longevity: Testing midlife vulnerability and resilience pathways

Adverse early experiences have been associated with higher mortality risk, but evidence varies by type of experiences, and relatively little is known about the role of favorable early experiences on health in later life. This study evaluated the independent contributions to longevity of favorable and unfavorable early experiences, including psychosocial stressors, childhood socioeconomic status (SES), and close relationships. We also examined 4 midlife psychosocial factors as vulnerability and resilience pathways potentially mediating these associations. The sample included 1,042 men from the VA Normative Aging Study. Early experiences were assessed retrospectively in 1961–1970 and 1995. Midlife psychosocial factors were measured in 1985–1991 and included stressful life events (SLEs), negative affect, life satisfaction, and optimism. Mortality was assessed through 2016. In multiple mediator structural equation models, which account for the overlap among pathways, higher number of SLEs in midlife mediated the association of having more childhood psychosocial stressors to reduced longevity, supporting stress continuity as a vulnerability pathway. Higher optimism in midlife also mediated the association of higher childhood SES to greater longevity. In single mediator models, higher life satisfaction in midlife transmitted the benefits of higher childhood SES and presence of close relationships onto longevity. Higher optimism also mediated the association of fewer childhood psychosocial stressors to longevity. However, these indirect effects were attenuated when accounting for shared variance among mediators, suggesting overlapping pathways. Findings offer novel evidence on unique and shared pathways linking specific dimensions of early experiences to longevity.