When young people believe their parents love them, they tend to be healthier as adults, a new study suggests.
The report by two University of Arizona psychologists is based on interviews done in the 1950s with 87 Harvard undergraduates and then follow-up interviews 35 years later.
The students who gave their parents high ratings for loving characteristics showed levels of disease far lower than the students who had rated their parents low on the love scale.
“We don’t know how loving and caring the parents were. We only know what the perceptions were,” said Gary Schwartz, a University of Arizona professor of psychology, neurology and psychiatry.
The researchers ruled out other factors that might explain the correlation, including family history of disease, the death or divorce of parents, marital and smoking histories of the subjects, and socioeconomic factors.
Schwartz collaborated on the study with Linda Russek, an Arizona research associate and a research psychologist at Harvard University Student Health Service. They will present their findings next week at a meeting of the American Psychosomatic Society in Santa Fe, N.M.
The perception of love and caring may serve as a buffer against the stresses of everyday life, which can affect long-term health, he said.
The Harvard students scored their parents, on a scale from one to nine, on the following characteristics: loving, just, fair, clever, hard-working and strong.
The Arizona researchers later lumped those terms into a “love and wisdom” category (loving, just, fair) and a “basic caring” category (clever, hard-working and strong).
Nineteen of the students rated their parents low in both categories. Decades later, 84 percent of them had been diagnosed for diseases such as cardiovascular disorders, ulcers or alcoholism.
Forty-one of the students rated their parents high in both categories. Only 37 percent of them were diagnosed with diseases when they were re-checked decades later.
“One of the take-home messages about this is that love really matters,” Schwartz said.