Black Men: Relationship Disadvantages Rooted in Childhood Adversity

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Childhood adversity could result in a lifelong process of relationship and health disadvantages in African-American men, according to results of a new study.

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The research found black men to be exposed to 28 percent more childhood adversity than white men, resulting in a three times stronger negative effect on the quality of their relationships in adulthood, according to the study that was funded by the National Institute of Child and Human Development and is slated to appear in the March issue of the Journal of Health and Social Behavior.

“I was surprised at the power of childhood adversity to influence racial disparities in health for men via its detrimental impact on adult relationships,” lead author Debra Umberson, a professor of sociology and a faculty associate in the Population Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin, said in a news release.

Researchers used data from the Americans’ Changing Lives project, the oldest, nationally-representative study, which looks at how social, psychological and behavioral factors influence health and changes in health over a lifetime.

The team, comprised of sociologists, focused on 3,477 Americans, all aged 25 and older, and all either black or white. Participants were interviewed four times during a 15-year period, answering questions about childhood difficulties, including economic hardship, their parent’s marital problems and violence in their household.

Additionally, they were asked about factors in their adult life, including personal stressful life events such as divorce, death of a spouse, child or parent. Other issues included financial and job issues, the quality of their relationships with partners, children, parents and health.

“Exposure to childhood adversity may cause stress and lead to a sequence of stressors over time that take a cumulative toll on relationships,” Umberson said in the statement. “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 also evaluated women, determining that white women are healthier than black women. The study, however, revealed that neither childhood adversity nor the quality of relationships in adulthood explain much of the racial disparity in health for black women.

“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 said in the statement. “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.”

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