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Parental training may offset health problems linked to social disadvantage, study shows

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Nicky Phillips

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<i>Illustration: Cathy Wilcox</i>

Illustration: Cathy Wilcox

John Lennon may have spent his early years living in a poor, broken family but he knew love is all you need

On Tuesday researchers will publish evidence of the famed songwriter’s sentiments in a study that found teaching poor parents how to nurture their children may partially offset the health risks that come with growing up poor.

The findings suggest such interventions may reduce the health gap between people from a disadvantaged background compared to those who have a privileged upbringing.

Children from low socio-economic backgrounds experience far more health problems during their life time than their wealthier peers. They are more likely to be born early and have lower birth weights, as well as a higher risk obesity, diabetes and asthma during childhood is also higher. As adults they experience more age-related cardiovascular disease and some cancers.

Psychologist Gregory Miller, the research leader, said these associations were typically independent of socio-economic status in adulthood, suggesting that childhood disadvantage could leave a biological ‘‘residue’’ with long-term health consequences.

One of the links between poor health and poverty is thought to be low-grade inflammation, which is caused by an overactive immune system.

"Many health problems in both childhood and adulthood involve excessive inflammation," said Professor Miller, a psychology professor at Northwestern University. "The process has a role in diabetes, heart disease, allergies and some cancers.’’

To examine this effect, the psychologists used data collected on more than 650 predominantly low-income African American families, each with an 11-year-old child.

As part of the study, the mother and child of about half the families were put through a seven-week training program that helped the parent improve their child-rearing skills and taught the child strategies to cope with stress, racism and peer pressure associated with sex, drugs and alcohol.

When the researchers followed up with the families eight years later they took blood samples from the now 19-year-old children and found the teenagers whose parents had received parenting classes had much lower rates of inflammation than their peers whose guardians had not had training.

"We also found that the training was most successful in reducing inflammation in families who came from the most disadvantaged neighbourhoods," said Professor Miller, whose results are published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

While the study did not uncover the mechanism by which improved parenting may reduce a child’s inflammation, the authors suggest children whose parents underwent training may have been exposed to less conflict, violence or neglect, which can induce stress-related biological responses that lead to inflammation.

But the researchers said follow-up studies were needed to confirm the results.