Two new studies indicate that our childhood memories – good or bad – have long-lasting effects on our health and wellbeing…

What do you remember about your childhood? Was it a happy one or did you have experiences you’d rather forget?

Childhood stress has been linked to various health and mental health problems in adulthood and now new research from Ohio State University may be able to explain why.

Researchers compared stressed rats to unstressed rats, and looked at the effects of prenatal stress, a single stressor after birth and chronic stress. Chronic stress in the animals included being left alone without their mothers for periods of time.

Stress affects mast cell activity in the brain

“We found that stress at different times had different effects – chronic exposure to stress is where we saw the significant differences in mast cell activity in the brain,” says Kathryn Lenz, the study’s senior author and an assistant professor of psychology at Ohio State, adding that those animals had 30 percent more of the immune cells than their unstressed counterparts.

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Childhood traumas, such as living in an abusive home or being neglected, can contribute to a wide array of problems down the road, including drug and alcohol addiction, depression and anxiety, and even cardiovascular disease

Males are more vulnerable

Male animals had more mast cells overall, which is interesting because there is evidence that, in humans, males may be more vulnerable to serious problems stemming from early childhood trauma, Lenz said.

These findings highlight the important role of mast cells.

“These are immune cells involved in allergic reactions that historically were largely ignored by neuroscientists, but now we’re finding in rodent models they could be responsible for some of the changes we see in neurodevelopment after a childhood trauma,” says Lenz.

“These childhood traumas, such as living in an abusive home or being neglected, can contribute to a wide array of problems down the road, including drug and alcohol addiction, depression and anxiety and even cardiovascular disease,” she said.

Happy children become healthy adults

On the flip side, another study found happy childhood memories to be linked to better health later in life.

Research published by the American Psychological Association found that people who have fond memories of childhood, specifically their relationships with their parents, tend to have better health, less depression and fewer chronic illnesses as adults, even after 50.

This is according to analysed data from two nationally representative samples – the National Survey of Midlife Development in the United States and the Health and Retirement Study – with a total of more than 22 000 participants.

The first study followed adults in their mid-40s for 18 years and the second followed adults 50 and over for six years.

Participants in both groups who reported remembering higher levels of affection from their mothers in early childhood experienced better physical health and fewer depressive symptoms later in life. Those who reported memories with more support from their fathers also experienced fewer depressive symptoms.

“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,” said lead author of the study, William J. Chopik, PhD, from Michigan State University.

So, while there’s nothing you can do to change the past, if you’re a parent you have the power to help ensure that most of your child’s memories are good ones.

Sources: Ohio State University via American Psychological via www.sciencedaily.com

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