Parental separation in childhood and adult inflammation: the importance of material and psychosocial pathways

Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2013 Nov;38(11):2476-84. doi: 10.1016/j.psyneuen.2013.05.007. Epub 2013 Jul 6.


Background: Childhood adversities are known to be associated with poorer health outcomes. A potential mechanism may be through changes in inflammatory processes. One such childhood adversity is separation of parents, however relatively little is known about the association between parental separation and inflammation in adulthood. The aims of this study were to (1) investigate whether parental separation is associated with inflammation in mid-life, (2) focus upon the mechanisms that may be involved in translating childhood adversities, such as parental separation, into poorer health outcomes in adulthood.

Methods: We examine the association of parental separation in childhood, defined as the breakdown of the parent's partnership, and levels of C-reactive protein (CRP) in middle age. The role played by material (through material disadvantage and educational attainment), psychosocial (through parent-child relationship quality and psychological distress) and adiposity (through BMI) mechanisms is investigated using path analysis in a multiply-imputed dataset from a British birth cohort with concurrent measurements made throughout the life course (n=7462).

Results: Participants that report parental separation have higher CRP levels at age 44 than those who grew up with both parents (β=0.16, 95% CI: 0.06, 0.27). This association is largely explained by BMI, material and psychosocial factors. Material disadvantage after separation and educational attainment seem to be particularly important in this association.

Conclusions: Parental separation increases CRP in adulthood via chains of disadvantage across the life course. This study points towards potential points for intervention and highlights a need to support separating families in order to minimise the long-term impact on adult health.

Keywords: Cohort study; Divorce; Inflammation; Material disadvantage; NCDS; Path analysis; Relationships.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aging / metabolism*
  • Aging / psychology*
  • Body Mass Index
  • C-Reactive Protein / metabolism
  • Child
  • Child, Preschool
  • Educational Status
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Inflammation / metabolism*
  • Inflammation / psychology*
  • Male
  • Maternal Deprivation*
  • Parent-Child Relations
  • Paternal Deprivation*
  • Poverty / psychology


  • C-Reactive Protein