November 13, 2018
2 min read

Positive childhood memories tied to better health, well-being in adulthood

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Robin Edelstein
Robin Edelstein

Memories of happy caregiving experiences in childhood were linked to better health, fewer chronic conditions and fewer depressive symptoms in middle and older adulthood, according to findings published in Health Psychology.

"We know that memory plays a huge part in how we make sense of the world — how we organize our past experiences and how we judge how we should act in the future,” William J. Chopik, PhD, assistant professor in the department of psychology at Michigan State University, said in a press release. “As a result, there are a lot of different ways that our memories of the past can guide us.”

Chopik and Robin S. Edelstein, PhD, chair of the personality and social contexts psychology program at University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, conducted this study to determine the connections between memories of early caregiving experiences and the trajectories of self-rated health, chronic health conditions and depressive symptoms over time in two large samples of middle-aged and older adults.

The investigators retrospectively examined participants’ memories of caregiver support — including reflections of their relationships with both parents — before age 18 years. The samples included more than 7,100 participants from the National Survey of Midlife Development in the U.S. followed for 18 years and more than 15,200 from the Health and Retirement Study followed over a 6-year period.

Chopik and Edelstein found that memories of higher parental affection in early childhood were linked to better self-rated health and fewer depressive symptoms longitudinally in both samples. For chronic health conditions, the results were less clear, with perceived maternal and paternal affection tied to fewer chronic conditions in the National Survey of Midlife Development sample, but not in the Health and Retirement Study sample.

In both samples, perceived higher levels of maternal affection in childhood were tied to both better physical health and fewer depressive symptoms. Perceived higher levels of paternal support were associated with fewer depressive symptoms in both samples, but better physical health only in the second sample, according to the multilevel model results. The researchers reported that all associations endured throughout adulthood and were not moderated by time.

“We found that good memories seem to have a positive effect on health and well-being, possibly through the ways that they reduce stress or help us maintain healthy choices in life,” Chopik said in the release. “The most surprising finding was that we thought the effects would fade over time because participants were trying to recall things that happened sometimes over 50 years ago. One might expect childhood memories to matter less and less over time, but these memories still predicted better physical and mental health when people were in middle age and older adulthood.” – by Savannah Demko

Disclosure: Chopik reports grant support for this research from the National Institute of Aging.