Recently, researchers from the University of Rochester Medical Center completed a study on the effects of family stress on the health of younger children. 169 healthy children, aged 5 to 10, and their families took part in the three-and-a-half-year study. At the beginning of the study and every six months, children and parents were interviewed about perceived levels and sources of stress. Children also provided a blood sample to look for markers of immune system activation, an indication of potential illness. In addition, parents were asked to keep a diary of the child’s health. Whenever a child was perceived to be ill, the parent took his/her temperature and recorded the results and physical signs.
The blood tests looked for immune system markers, called NK (natural killer) cells. NK cells are swift-acting cells that recognize and kill bacteria, viruses and other dangers to the body. The researchers found, over short periods of time (every six months), there were no significant changes in NK cell function for any of the children. However, over the long-term, higher levels of family stress was associated with an increase in NK cell activity. This also correlated with increased rates of illness in a child.
Peter A. Wyman, Ph.D., says the increase in NK cell function is surprising because in adults, higher levels of stress are associated with a decrease in NK cell activity. The findings suggest parents’ ability to cope with stress may influence a child’s developing immune system and health. Wyman says many families cope well with different kinds of stresses. Those positive coping skills may protect a child’s immune system. On the other hand, parents who show signs of stress may negatively affect their child’s health. Further studies need to be done to determine how family stress may have an effect on a child’s immune system and health.