For many people, their experiences as a child persist as memory, history, and legacy throughout their lives. What is childhood, if not the foundation for the rest of our lives? Now, a new study funded by the National Institute of Child and Human Development finds childhood adversity launches a lifelong process of relationship and health disadvantage for African-American men. "I was surprised at the power of childhood adversity to influence racial disparities in health for men via its detrimental impact on adult relationships," said lead author Debra Umberson, a professor of sociology and a faculty associate in the Population Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin.

Gender Differences

For the current research, the team of sociologists culled and analyzed data from the Americans' Changing Lives project, the oldest, nationally-representative study, which looks at how social, psychological, and behavioral factors influence health and changes in health over a lifetime. The team focused on 3,477 Americans, all aged 25 and older, and all either black or white. Interviewed four times during a 15-year period, the participants answered questions about their childhood difficulties, including economic hardship, their parent’s marital problems, and violence in their household. They also were asked to speak about factors in their adult life, such as personal stressful life events (divorce, say, or the death of a spouse, child, or parent), financial and job issues, the quality of their relationships with partners, children, and parents, and health.

What did the team discover? Comparing black and white adults, the researchers found substantial disparities in the quality of relationships — which then had consequences on health — and this difference was especially pronounced among men. In fact, the research found black men to be exposed to 28 percent more childhood adversity than white men and this amounts to a three times stronger negative effect on the quality of their relationships in adulthood.

Turning toward the women, Umberson and her colleagues uncovered data showing that although white women are healthier than black women, neither childhood adversity nor the quality of their adult relationships could explain this disparity. “Stress that occurs in adulthood plays a greater role than childhood adversity in explaining racial disparities in health among women,” wrote the authors in their study. Umberson admits to feeling surprised that childhood adversity had such a minor impact on black women's health. "Generally speaking, women tend to have more close relationships and to share their feelings with others,” Umberson stated in a press release. “This is true for black and white women. Supportive relationships protect health."

How exactly does childhood adversity impact adult health? Exposure and vulnerability to stress are the two primary ways, Umberson said. "Exposure to childhood adversity may cause stress and lead to a sequence of stressors over time that take a cumulative toll on relationships," she stated. "In addition, childhood adversity may trigger an enduring pattern of psychological and physiological vulnerability to stress that undermines relationships in adulthood. Past research, including some of my own, has shown that bad relationships often lead to worse physical health."

Certainly, researchers of post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD would agree. In that field, it is commonly said those who are most at risk for developing PTSD (following a trauma) are people who have been exposed to trauma or chronic stress in their childhoods. Although pop culture would have us believe the present moment offers us an opportunity to freely act in our own best interest, a great deal of academic research suggests exactly the opposite: that experiences in our earliest years matter deeply and shape our responses, both good and bad, in the here and now.

Source: Umberson D, Williams K, Thomas PA, Liu H, Thomeer MB. Race, Gender, and Chains of Disadvantage: Childhood Adversity, Social Relationships, and Health. Journal of Health and Social Behavior. 2014.