African American men who endured greater childhood adversity are likely to experience disadvantages in health and relationships over time, according to new sociology research from The University of Texas at Austin.
The study, published in the March issue of the Journal of Health and Social Behavior, helps to explain why African American men are less healthy than white men.
“Exposure to childhood adversity may cause stress and lead to a sequence of stressors over time that take a cumulative toll on relationships,” says Debra Umberson, professor of sociology and a faculty associate in the Population Research Center. “In addition, childhood adversity may trigger an enduring pattern of psychological and physiological vulnerability to stress that undermines relationships in adulthood. Past research, including some of my own, has shown that bad relationships often lead to worse physical health.”
The study relies on data from a nationally representative longitudinal survey of black and white male and female respondents aged 25 and older. The participants were interviewed four times during a 15-year period and answered questions about their past childhood adversity, adulthood stress and quality of adulthood relationships.
According to the findings, African American men are exposed to 28 percent more childhood adversity than white men. The impact of these negative life events on adult relationships is three times as strong compared with white men.
“This pathway from childhood adversity to lower quality relationships in adulthood explains part of the race disparity in health among men, something that has not been recognized in previous research,” Umberson says.
The study also shows white women are healthier than black women. However, the researchers found that neither childhood adversity nor the quality of relationships in adulthood explains much of the racial disparity in health between these two groups.
“I was surprised that childhood adversity had such a minor impact on black women’s health in adulthood, especially since the effect was so strong for black men,” Umberson says. “I think this is best explained by women’s tendency to seek out social contact in response to stress. Generally speaking, women tend to have more close relationships and to share their feelings with others. This is true for black and white women. Supportive relationships protect health.”
Umberson said the study suggests policymakers should put a greater emphasis on improving children’s quality of life.
“Creating programs that provide children with access to stable environments and nurturing adults at the youngest possible age may be particularly important for black male youth with health and well-being benefits that last a lifetime,” Umberson said.
Funding from the National Institute on Aging and the National Institute of Child and Human Development supported this research.