Early Life Stress Leads to Poor Physical Functioning for Men in Later Life

The wide body of research on early life stress (ELS) suggests that trauma, maltreatment, and events that occur in childhood and result in stress can have long-term consequences. Studies have linked abuse, neglect, and other negative conditions in childhood to future psychological and physical impairments in some samples. However, environment, timing of negative events, and other factors all influence the eventual outcome.

Understanding how specific childhood ELS affects health in later life could provide a window of opportunity for treatment for the most vulnerable segments of the population. Therefore, Hanna Alastalo of the Department of Chronic Disease Prevention at the National Institute for Health and Welfare in Finland recently led a study examining the physical and psychological health of older individuals who had experienced periods of separation from their parents during childhood. For her study, Alastalo looked at data from over 1,800 adults born between 1934 and 1944. She assessed how parental separation during WWII affected their functioning based on data gathered from 2001 through 2004.

The results revealed that men who were separated from their parents during childhood had higher levels of ELS than women and lower levels of physical and psychological functioning. Alastalo also noticed that the longer the period of separation, the larger the negative impact for men. However, separation did not appear to cause poor psychological or physical functioning in the female participants.

In all, 267 of the 1,803 participants had experienced parental separation. Compared to the control participants who were not separated from their parents during the war, the men in the separated group had higher levels of stress and higher rates of physical ailments. Alastalo believes that the increased rates of heart disease and aggression in men could be partly due to the vulnerability from ELS. The findings of this study did not explain why the women were not affected by parental separation in the same way men were. “Therefore,” added Alastalo, “Future research should examine further gender differences in relation early life stress and take into account the cumulative effects of all life disadvantages.”

Alastalo, H., von Bonsdorff, M.B., Räikkönen, K., Pesonen, A-K., Osmond C, et al. (2013). Early life stress and physical and psychosocial functioning in late adulthood. PLoS ONE 8(7): e69011. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0069011

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  • Danni


    July 22nd, 2013 at 2:39 PM

    Until you read this kind of indisputable proof, I don’t think that most of realize the extent that these kinds of early life events end up playing for us for the rest of our lives.

  • Blakely


    July 23rd, 2013 at 4:30 AM

    Kind of surprised that this doesn’t seem to have the same impact on females as the males. The historical point of view has always been that women are weaker and more needy, but I guess we are stronger and more resilient than we have been given credit for! ;)

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