As if children of divorce haven’t been through enough, a new study suggests that adults who come from broken homes tend to be more vulnerable to the common cold, even years later. It sounds hard to believe—until you consider that the researchers discovered this in a prospective study, which involved intentionally infecting 200 healthy adults (51 of whom reported growing up with separated parents who did not speak to one another) with a live cold virus, and quarantining them in a hotel room for six days to keep tabs on who caught a cold.
“There is evidence that children whose parents divorce are at increased risk for illness both during their childhood and as adults,” coauthor on the study Michael Murphy of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh told Fatherly.
For the study, Murphy and colleagues recruited 201 volunteers ages 18 to 55 years old who were in “good general health,” as determined by medical history and a physical exam. Participants were asked to recall their parents’ relationships, and then exposed to the RV39 cold virus through nasal drops. Finally, to protect the integrity of the experiment and avoid outside confounding variables, Murphy and his team quarantined the volunteers for six days in a hotel room that should never meet a black light. Understandably, the participants were given $1,000 for the trouble. Because come on.
After six days, the researchers found that adults who had reported growing up with parents who were not together and did not speak were three times more likely to develop a cold when exposed to the virus. Interestingly, offspring of parents who were separated but still on speaking terms were no more susceptible to the virus than other adults. This suggests that ugly divorces may weaken a child’s immune system, but that amicable separation probably does not. “Our study indicates that parental separation itself may not account for this increased risk,” Murphy says.
But there are several important caveats to consider. Lawrence L. Wu, professor of sociology and director of New York University’s Population Center (who was not involved in the study) told Fatherly that he considered it a bit odd that 25 percent of the sample reported having parents who were not on speaking terms. This is an unusually high percentage, he says, and may be a result of oversampling—for instance, when kids are born out of wedlock their parents often separate and never speak again, but that doesn’t mean they lived through a rough divorce. “The study is intriguing but may refer to those who grow up in rather unusual circumstances, at least when viewed from the perspective of the larger U.S. population,” Wu says.
Catherine M. Lee, professor of psychology at the University of Ottawa (who was also not involved in the study) finds the results intriguing, but raises the concern that the very crux of the study is how well adults remember their childhoods. “A weakness is that it is retrospective recall of relationships, which is notoriously unreliable,” she says. Using retrospective data (childhood history) to explain prospective results (adults who got sick) is not necessarily advisable.
Indeed, Murphy acknowledges that the study is not perfect. “It is always possible that some other unmeasured characteristic could account for our findings,” he says.
For now, the scientific consensus seems to be that there’s no such thing as an ideal divorce, but that there are certainly ways to mitigate stress for the children involved. There are many studies that suggest communication and cooperation among parents post-divorce is key, but the reality is that for some families this may not be an option, especially when child or spousal abuse is a factor in the decision to separate. “Ultimately, more research on interventions aimed at improving child outcomes following divorce are needed to best address this question,” Murphy concludes.
More research? Sounds like more hotel rooms, canned cold viruses, and $1000 paychecks. Sign us up!