An extremely weird study has popped up that tries to connect low socio-economic status with attachment theory to try and explain healthcare status in adulthood. Although the approach is definitely novel, the proposed idea that attachment orientations like fear of abandonment in childhood can lead to poorer health in adulthood is extremely dubious, to put it lightly.
In Brief: Economics and Health
A noticeable trend in health statistics is that people who have a low socio-economic status (SES) in early childhood are more likely to suffer poor health as an adult later in life. Part of the reason for this observation is thought in some circles to be connected to various social experiences and exposures that are more common when growing up in a low SES environment.
In Brief: Attachment Theory
Attachment theory is a branch of child psychology that relates to how relationships and emotional attachments are formed. The basic (and heavily simplified) idea behind the theory is that if an attachment to a caregiver is not established in early childhood, it can affect psychosocial development, as well as any relationships, later in life.
What Is This Study About?
The study’s language is surprisingly dense given how little of it there actually is. The underlying hypothesis appears to be as follows:
- Parents of low socio-economic status are under burdens that reduce how available they are to their children
- This limited contact, according to attachment theory, leads to fears of abandonment, difficulty forming relationships, and/or other types of “attachment orientations”
- These orientations translate to negative emotions and increased stresses, possibly via the parasympathetic nervous system
- This whole chain of events then underlies the link between low childhood SES and poorer adult health.
With that particular knot untangled, let’s move on.
The study had 213 participants, all of whom provided self-reports on childhood socio-economic status, attachment orientations, general stress, and self-rated health status. The researchers also evaluated the participants’ respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA), which is when the heart rate and breathing rate line up. RSA is a normal occurrence that was used as a proxy measurement for parasympathetic activity. RSA was measured both at rest and during “an acute social stressor.”
- The participants in the bottom 25% of childhood SES had 65% worse self-reported health values as adults than the top 75% of childhood SES results
- This poor health appeared regardless of what the adult SES actually was
- Having an “attachment avoidance” orientation was correlated to health outcomes and general stress reports, but only among individuals with high RSA during the social-stressor measurement
What This Means
The study’s conclusion states that, “attachment theory is useful for understanding why those from low SES backgrounds are at greater risk of negative health outcomes in adulthood. Findings extend our knowledge of how interpersonal relationships in childhood can shape emotional and physical health outcomes in adulthood.”
You may notice that the conclusion does not refer to any specific part of the results. There is a reason for that: The results and methods are vague and make little sense, even if taken at face value. You will notice, for instance, that there is no effort made to describe the self-reported health status measurements with any sense of specificity. It’s not even clear if any of the reasons the participants felt they were in poor health had a connection to the parasympathetic system in the first place, which was the entire reason for the RSA comparisons. Furthermore, since RSA are a normal experience of the body, it’s not even clear how it’s a valid bridge between attachment, stress, and general health.
The idea that childhood stressors can influence adult health is not new, and the attempt to look at the connection through the lens of attachment is certainly novel and creative. However, the way the study was carried out can be most generously described as “ill-advised.”
This is not a negative study. Negative studies are still useful to the body of scientific knowledge. This is not even a preliminary study, since those at least suggest areas worth investigating further. Instead, this study is a bizarre collection of measurements and words that shall boggle and perplex the unwary reader.
Murdock, K., et. al., “Attachment Orientations, Respiratory Sinus Arrhythmia, and Stress Are Important for Understanding the Link Between Childhood Socioeconomic Status and Adult Self-Reported Health,” Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 2016; 10.1007/s12160-016-9842-4.
McCaig, A., “Low socio-economic status, fear of abandonment can lead to poor adult health,” Rice University web site, October 13, 2016; http://news.rice.edu/2016/10/13/low-socio-economic-status-fear-of-abandonment-early-in-life-can-lead-to-poor-adult-health-2/, last accessed October 14, 2016.