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How heartbreak and hardship shape growing old

01/03/20

From being raised by an emotionally cold mother to experiencing violence, war and bereavement, difficult life events have a profound effect on our physical and mental wellbeing in later life.

A new study published today shows how a range of life inequalities and hardships are linked to physical and mental health inequalities in later life.

These stressful and often heart-breaking life inequalities included having emotionally cold parents, poor educational opportunities, losing an unborn child, financial hardship, involvement in conflict, violence and experiencing a natural disaster.

The research team found that people who experienced the greatest levels of hardship, stress and personal loss were five times more likely to experience a lower quality of life, with significantly more health and physical difficulties in later life.

Those brought up by an emotionally cold mother were also significantly less likely to experience a good quality of life and more likely to experience problems in later life such as anxiety, psychiatric problems and social detachment.

The researchers say that policies aimed at reducing inequalities in older age should consider events across the life course.

Prof Nick Steel, form UEA’s Norwich Medical School, said: “Everybody lives a unique life that is shaped by events, experiences and their environment.

“We know that inequalities in exposure to different events over a lifetime are associated with inequalities in health trajectories, particularly when it comes to events in childhood such as poverty, bereavement or exposure to violence.

“While the impact of adverse childhood events is well recognised for children and young people, the negative events that shape our entire life courses are rarely discussed for older people.

“We wanted to better understand the effects of events over a life course – to find out how adverse events over a person’s lifetime affect their physical, mental and social health in later life. As well as looking at single life events, we also identified groups or patterns of events.”

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