A Mother's Love Overcomes Poverty's Effect on Health

TUESDAY May 18, 2010 -- A mother's love can make scrapes feel better and soothe hurt feelings. Now, new research shows that a warm, caring mother can also shield against the ill health effects of growing up poor -- protection that can last well into adulthood.

Studies have shown that being poor is associated with a higher risk for heart disease and other mental and physical illnesses throughout the life span. It's believed that the stress and deprivation of low socioeconomic status causes the immune system to go into overdrive, activating genes and releasing proteins that can cause inflammation throughout the body.

Inflammation is implicated in many diseases, including asthma, depression and cardiovascular disease, according to background information in the study.

However, the new study shows that having a caring mom can halt some of those pro-inflammatory processes.

In the study, researchers analyzed key aspects of the immune systems of 53 people, ages 25 to 40, who were raised in poor families during the first five years of life. Participants were also asked about their relationships with their mothers based on a standard measurement called the Parent Bonding Inventory. That information was also corroborated by information from the mothers.

Researchers then isolated peripheral blood mononuclear cells, a component of the immune system.

The 26 adults who described their mothers as warm and loving had lower gene expression in genes that promote inflammation than those with more distant moms.

Those with warm moms also secreted less interleukin 6, a protein also linked to inflammation.

"It's really remarkable that, 30 years later, you can see these kinds of signals in their gene expression and immune response that can be related back to socioeconomic status and maternal life in the first five years of life early life," said study co-author Michael Kobor, a professor of medical genetics at University of British Columbia in Vancouver. "Mothers can have a profound influence that you can see on a molecular level."

The study is published May 18 in the journal Molecular Psychiatry.

Dr. Julio Licinio, editor of the journal and director of the John Curtin School of Medical Research at Australian National University, said he believed it's the first study to show, at a molecular level, the influence of what many have believed to be true -- that good moms can make a difference in a child's life.

"It's the first time that I know of that researchers have shown good parenting has a biological effect," Licinio said. "What they showed here is the level of activation is smaller in people with higher maternal warmth."

Sheila Smith, director of early childhood at the National Center for Children in Poverty at Columbia University, said the study reinforced what child development research has shown -- that maternal warmth can have lifelong benefits.

"Maternal warmth is a very important predictor of good outcomes, both short-term and long-term, for children," Smith said. "When I read that on top of all of that, it may help reduce rates of conditions such as cardiovascular disease, that makes me think we should be doing even more to help parents provide that type of support to young children."

However, poverty can make it difficult for families to be able to provide the most basic needs, such as food and housing for their families, West said. "Some parents who are experiencing economic hardship and stress have difficulty providing the type of warmth that's needed," West said. "It tells us we need to do certain things to make sure parents can respond with warmth."

Those measures include screening for depression, more assistance for families struggling to meet basic needs and programs that offer social support from other parents, she added.

While the study didn't look at the role of dads, other studies have shown the responsibility shouldn't fall all on moms. Fathers, stepparents, other relatives and even friends can help offer kids the warmth and engagement they need, West said.

More information

The National Center for Children in Poverty has more on issues facing children in low-income families.

Posted: May 2010


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