Split parents may raise sicker children

A woman blowing her nose.
The children of estranged parents may be more likely to get colds as adults.
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Children who grow up with estranged parents who do not speak to each other are more likely to suffer from runny noses in later life.

That’s the slightly bizarre finding emerging from a study conducted by US medical researchers and published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Psychologists Michael Murphy and Sheldon Cohen of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, US, teamed up with dentist Denise Janicki-Deverts and ear-nose-and-throat specialist William J. Doyle to add data to the well-supported contention that parental separation can increase a child’s risk of illness during adulthood.

A link between adult anxiety and parental separation or loss, for instance, was established in 2008 by team led by Audrey Tyrka of Brown University in Rhode Island, US.

Since then, parental separation has been associated with a range of conditions, including auto-immune problems and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.  

For the current study, Murphy and colleagues recruited 201 healthy adult volunteers, aged between 18 and 55. The adults came from a range of childhood backgrounds, and included a subset whose parents had separated and never spoken to each other again.

The volunteers were quarantined and exposed to a virus known to cause cold-like symptoms. Each was then monitored for five days, with virus-specific symptoms, disease markers and inflammation noted.

The results were unambiguous. 

“Adults whose parents lived apart and never spoke during their childhood were more than three times as likely to develop a cold when exposed to the upper respiratory virus than adults from intact families,” the team wrote.

Adults whose parents had separated but who had continued to talk to each other thereafter showed an infection rate identical to that experienced by volunteers who grew up in intact families.

The researchers concluded that children who grow up with estranged, non-communicative parents developed less robust immune systems than their peers. 

The results may help social workers and healthcare workers better predict the needs of children facing challenges because of family discord.

“Given the wide prevalence of parental separation and divorce and limited intervention resources, these findings have important implications for better understanding who is at increased risk for deleterious health consequences following parental separation,” the researchers conclude.

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