Positive Childhood Experiences linked with better adult outcomes
The Sector > Research > Positive childhood experiences strongly linked with mental and physical adult health

Positive childhood experiences strongly linked with mental and physical adult health

by Freya Lucas

December 28, 2023

Positive childhood experiences (PCEs) – like having supportive relationships and nurturing environments – are strongly associated with improved mental and physical health in adulthood, a new study from UCLA has found.


The study suggests that these experiences might be especially protective against the effects of early life adversity. 


To reach their findings the researchers used data from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics (PSID) to measure PCEs in 7,105 adults living across the United States, such as support from peers, school atmosphere, safety in the neighborhood, community support, and nurturing parental relationships. 


Researchers then used statistical models to test how each of the five PCE types from childhood relates to overall health and various health conditions in adulthood. 


When participants reported having strong peer relationships during childhood, a supportive school environment, and a neighborhood they felt safe in while growing up, they were less likely to report various health problems in adulthood, even for individuals who had experienced childhoods with more adversity. The strongest impact of these PCEs was on mental health outcomes.


Decades of evidence have shown that various forms of childhood adversity and adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) harm health lifelong. ACEs are defined as significantly stressful or traumatic childhood events, and for this study, ACEs include a childhood history of experiencing neglect, abuse, or household challenges including having parents that were divorced or separated, witnessing intimate partner violence in the home, or having a parent with a mental illness or a substance use disorder.


Researchers found that PCEs were linked to better health outcomes, even in the face of the negative effect of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) on adult health.


“We’ve discovered that the strength of the relationship between PCEs and adult health conditions varies by the type of PCE – having a positive experience in school and feeling safe in one’s school and neighborhood appear to significantly improve mental and physical health outcomes in adulthood regardless of one’s exposure to adverse childhood experiences,” lead author Dr. Jaime La Charite said. 


“By implementing interventions to enhance school atmosphere, peer interactions, and neighborhood safety, we could potentially see a reduction in adverse mental and physical health outcomes throughout adult life.” 


While the PCEs of supportive parenting relationships have been well-recognised as protective for health outcomes, the study authors suggest that because peer support, school climate, and neighborhood safety appear to be linked most strongly to improved adult health, it’s crucial to also invest in research and interventions in schools and neighborhoods during childhood to promote health lifelong. These interventions could improve the health of entire populations, even among those who have faced adversity and trauma.


Access the findings in full here. 

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