According to a study published in PLOS ONE on July 5, the long term health effects from childhood stress resulting from early life separation from parents may impact men more than women later in life. Heavily influenced by the timing and duration of the separation, the increased risk for impaired physical health and emotional functioning experienced by the men studied, was not evident in the women studied who had similar childhood separation experiences.
With the goal to investigate disease origins from a life course perspective, researchers from Helsinki Finland’s National Institute for Health and Welfare, theorized that a later in life health decline may not only be biologically and environmentally related, but might also track back to early life experiences such as early life separation. Through data from the Helsinki Birth Cohort Study (HCBS) researchers evaluated 1803 participants born 1934 – 44, of which 267 (14.8%) had been evacuated unaccompanied by their parents (“separated”) to Sweden or Denmark during WWII. The most common periods of separation were during toddlerhood and early childhood, and for approximately 1- 2 years in duration.
Overall, those that experienced early life separation demonstrated a significantly higher prevalence of chronic illness in adulthood, such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes compared to those that were not separated. However the men that experienced separation also showed a higher risk for decreased physical functioning (limitations due to pain, lack of fitness and well-being) in late adulthood, and those separated from parents at the age of seven or older for over two years, had the highest risk for decreased physical as well as psychosocial functioning (i.e. more emotional problems, lowered energy, and difficulties socially).
Interestingly, the researchers did not find any association between the separation experience and decreased physical and psychosocial functioning in the women; in fact those women who were separated for less than one year showed better psychosocial functioning than the non-separated participants.
The researchers could not give an explanation as to why the men appeared more vulnerable than the women to the ill effects from early life separation. Previous studies have shown adult men who have experienced early life stress from physical and sexual abuse to have better physical functioning than women with similar experiences; the researchers credit the diversity of the early separation experience as the probable cause for the reversed gender results. Factors such as socioeconomic status, the quality of the child’s temporary foster care, and the developmental differences between men and women all may have a significant impact. Further gender differences in relation to early life stress as well as the cumulative effects of all life disadvantages should be taken into account in future research.
Early Life Stress and Physical and Psychosocial Functioning in Late Adulthood; Hanna Alastalo, Eero Kajantie, Johan G. Eriksson: Department of Chronic Disease Prevention, National Institute for Health and Welfare, Helsinki, Finland. Published: July 5, 2013, Plos ONE
Health-Related Quality of Life Among Adults Who Experienced Maltreatment During Childhood; American Journal of Public Health: June 2008, Vol. 98, No. 6, pp. 1094-1100, Phaedra S. Corso, PhD, Valerie J. Edwards, PhD, Xiangming Fang, PhD, and James A. Mercy, PhD; Alpha Publications