Early Adversity Has Long-Term Consequences

After receiving her Ph.D. in sociology from Vanderbilt University, Debra Umberson has continued to focus her research on relationships and health across all stages of life, with particular emphasis on intimate relationships, family ties and the blending of quantitative and qualitative research methods. She is conducting research that aims to better understand how the dynamics of marriage impact health in various areas, including health behaviors at home and how childhood adversity can affect an employee’s workplace personality.

Umberson recently spoke with Diversity Executive. Below are excerpts from the interview.

What made you want to conduct a study about childhood adversity?

I’ve been studying social relationships and health for many years and I’ve come to think of relationships as a resource for health. Like other resources in society, some groups are more disadvantaged than others.

This really came home for me a few years ago when I was doing in-depth interviews with people about social ties and health throughout their lives. I conducted interviews with equal numbers of black and white Americans, men and women. Repeatedly, I heard stories of incredible childhood adversity (and much more often for black than for white Americans) and it was clear that these experiences had effects on relationships and health even into adulthood. That’s what led me to analyze the national data to see if these patterns were apparent in the general population.

Was there anything surprising about what you found in your results?

I thought that childhood adversity might affect adult relationships and health in different ways for men and women because men and women tend to have different types of relationships and relationship experiences. But I was surprised that childhood adversity did not substantially contribute to explaining racial differences in adult health for women.

Were all of your hypothesizes confirmed? Why were black people and white people the only demographics chosen for the study? Are you planning to undertake this study with other races in the future?

In our national data, we did not have enough people in other demographic groups to make comparisons.

In the future, I will be looking more closely at the in-depth interviews (that I described above) to help us better understand the social and behavioral pathways linking childhood adversity to relationships in adulthood.

What is the biggest thing someone should learn from this study?

Childhood adversity launches a lifelong process of relationship and health disadvantage for black men.

So it seems that relationships are yet another social resource for health where we see inequality and an accumulation of disadvantage for black men in the U.S. Policy and intervention efforts that improve the lives of young children and reduce exposure to childhood adversity have the power to improve not only the quality of life for children but the potential to influence their health even decades later and to potentially reduce racial disparities in adult health for men.

Eric Short is an editorial intern at Diversity Executive magazine. He can be reached at editor@diversity-executive.com.