Happy Childhood Memories May Boost Physical And Mental Health in Later Life

A study published in the journal Health Psychology found that people who had good childhood memories of their parental relationships tended, once they were older adults, to have better health, less depression and fewer chronic illnesses. iStock

We know that our memories play a huge part in how we make sense of the world.

Now, researchers have found that people who had good childhood memories of their parental relationships tended to have better health, less depression and fewer chronic illnesses as older adults, according to a paper published in Health Psychology.

Studies have shown that memories of positive relationships likely serve many functions: They instill us with a sense of gratitude, make us feel good and give us hope for our current and future relationships.

"We had previously read research on the power of memories we have about our relationships," William Chopik, lead author of the study from Michigan State University, told Newsweek. "Our memories serve as the foundation for why we do all sorts of things in life—why we avoid things we dislike, how we make decisions about work and relationships, and how we accumulate information about the world."

"I was surprised by two findings: that more positive memories with our parents were associated with better health and well-being in young adulthood (in our twenties) and that our memories become warped over time—such that they can be very different than reality," he said. "So we wanted to see if, after a while, these memories mattered less and less over time, especially decades and decades after we no longer live (or even interact) with our parents."

This previous research suggested that good memories seem to have a positive effect on health and well-being, possibly through the ways that they reduce stress or help us make healthy choices in life.

In fact, it has been shown that people who had positive perceptions of their early parental relationships were more likely to have a higher quality of work, better personal relationships, lower substance abuse, lower depression and fewer health problems, in young adulthood.

Despite this, very few studies have examined the links between early parental relationships and health/well-being in later life. Furthermore, much of the research looking into the issue has focused on the role of mothers in child development, while neglecting the impact of paternal relationships.

In the study, Chopik and his colleagues addressed those gaps by assessing older adults and examining their reflections of their relationships with both of their parents. To do that, the team looked at data from two nationally representative samples of more than 22,000 participants.

The first was the National Survey of Midlife Development in the United States, which followed adults in their mid-40s for 18 years. The second, the Health and Retirement Study, tracked adults who were 50 and over for six years.

Both surveys included questions about participants' perceptions of parental affection, overall health, chronic conditions and depressive symptoms.

The researchers found that participants in both surveys who reported receiving high levels of affection from their mothers in early childhood had better physical health and fewer depressive symptoms later in life. The same outcomes were also seen in those who had memories of a good relationship with their father.

"The most surprising finding was that we thought the effects would fade over time, because participants were trying to recall things that happened sometimes over 50 years ago," Chopik said in a statement. "One might expect childhood memories to matter less and less over time, but these memories still predicted better physical and mental health when people were in middle age and older adulthood."

"I think a lot of people discount the role that our memories and experiences have on how they affect our everyday behavior," he said. "This study suggests that they may play a stronger role than we think. It's also worth noting that our memories are not always accurate. People tend to warp their memories of objective events to be in line with their pre-existing ideas about themselves."

The team also found that while memories of both maternal and paternal relationships mattered, memories of mothers appeared to be more significant.

However, these results may reflect "the broader cultural circumstances of the time when the participants were raised because mothers were most likely the primary caregivers," Robin Edelstein, a co-author of the study from Michigan State, said in the statement. "With shifting cultural norms about the role of fathers in caregiving, it is possible that results from future studies of people born in more recent years will focus more on relationships with their fathers."

It is important to note that the study did not uncover direct proof that positive perceptions of early parental relationships led to better physical and mental health in later adulthood. There may have been a number of unmeasured variables that might explain the associations that were found. For example, individual differences in cognitive ability may affect both retrospective memories and health.

Furthermore, the team found that participants with positive childhood memories had fewer chronic conditions in the first study but not in the second study, complicating the picture.

"One limitation is that our study didn't test exactly why positive memories are good for you, Chopik said. "There's research to suggest that these initial memories form the foundation for all of our relationships moving forward. So maybe parental memories are associated with better health because they led us into better relationships as adults (and that's good for us)."

"Even though what you remember might be more important than what actually happened, we don't really know why people's memories are so far off," he said. "Do these memories really just fade? Or are we warping them to fit a narrative about our lives (which there's some evidence for)."

The authors said the issue needs to be investigated further, using greater numbers of people over longer periods of time—as well taking into account different variables—in order to better understand what's going on.

"Obviously, we can't randomly assign people to have good versus bad childhoods, or purposely twist their memories," Chopik said. "But one thing that would immediately help is more longitudinal data looking at how our memories about our past change as we do."

"Maybe our current happiness or positive relationships make us focus on how bad life used to be or we remember the good moments more often)," he said. "There hasn't been a lot of work tracking how autobiographical memory changes throughout the entirety of life. Maybe then we'd have a better idea about the nature of our memories and then we can link it to health more clearly when we're older."

This article has been updated to include additional comments from William Chopik.