A new study from Carnegie Mellon University shows that children whose parents were not on speaking terms after a separation were more than three times as likely to catch a cold virus than children whose parents remained together or had a friendly relationship post-divorce.
For the study, 201 healthy adult volunteers were quarantined and exposed to a virus that causes a common cold. Nasal drops containing rhinovirus 39 (RV39) were administered to the participants. The volunteers were then monitored for five days for the development of any respiratory symptoms.
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The participants were split into three groups. The groups included those whose parents remained together throughout their childhood, those whose parents divorced, but remained on speaking terms, and those whose parents divorced, but no longer talked to one another.
The researchers found that those participants whose parents did not speak after separation were 3.3 times more likely to catch a cold from the exposed virus. According to the study, the increased risk was partially due to heightened inflammation in response to the viral infection.
"There's good evidence that stressful life experiences, especially when they're persistent over a long period of time, can do things to our physiology that increase risk of future illness. And there's also a number of sort of adverse childhood experiences that can sort of affect our immune systems and future disease risks," Murphy told Newsweek.
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The silver lining to the research is that children are not necessarily at increased risk for health concerns simply because a divorce occurred. The participants in the study whose parents divorced, but remained cordial, had no higher risk for infection. This is a positive finding considering the fact that so many children are affected by divorce.
While the U.S. divorce rate has recently dropped to its lowest rate in forty years, there are still over 813,000 divorces each year in the United States.
"Our results target the immune system as an important carrier of the long-term negative impact of early family conflict," said researcher Sheldon Cohen. "They also suggest that all divorces are not created equal, with continued communication between parents buffering deleterious effects of separation on the health care trajectories of the children."