Perceptions of parental caring predict health status in midlife: a 35-year follow-up of the Harvard Mastery of Stress Study

Psychosom Med. Mar-Apr 1997;59(2):144-9. doi: 10.1097/00006842-199703000-00005.


Objective: This study examined how the perception of parental caring, obtained from undergraduates, relates to subsequent health over the ensuing 35 years.

Methods: In the early 1950s, initial ratings of parental caring were obtained from a sample of healthy, Harvard undergraduate men who participated in the Harvard Mastery of Stress Study. In a 35 year prospective, follow-up investigation, detailed medical and psychological histories and medical records were obtained.

Results: Subjects identified in midlife as suffering from illnesses such as coronary artery disease, hypertension, duodenal ulcer, and alcoholism, gave their parents significantly lower ratings (p < .00003) on perceived parental caring items (loving, just, fair, hardworking, clever, strong) while in college. This effect was independent of subject's age, family history of illness, smoking behavior, the death and/or divorce of parents, and marital history of subjects. Furthermore, 87% of subjects who rated both their mothers and fathers low in parental caring had diagnosed diseases in midlife, whereas only 25% of subjects who rated both their mothers and fathers high in parental caring had diagnosed diseases in midlife.

Conclusions: Since parents are usually the most meaningful source of social support for much of early life, the perception of parental caring, and parental loving itself, may have important regulatory and predictive effects on biological and psychological health and illness.

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Psychological*
  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Alcoholism / diagnosis
  • Alcoholism / psychology
  • Bereavement
  • Coronary Disease / diagnosis
  • Coronary Disease / psychology
  • Duodenal Ulcer / diagnosis
  • Duodenal Ulcer / psychology
  • Follow-Up Studies
  • Health Status*
  • Humans
  • Hypertension / diagnosis
  • Hypertension / psychology
  • Internal-External Control
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Parent-Child Relations*
  • Parenting / psychology
  • Personality Development*
  • Personality Inventory / statistics & numerical data
  • Prospective Studies
  • Psychometrics
  • Psychophysiologic Disorders / diagnosis
  • Psychophysiologic Disorders / psychology*
  • Retrospective Studies
  • Smoking / psychology
  • Social Support
  • Stress, Psychological / complications*
  • Students / psychology