Researchers Link Childhood Attachment Anxiety to Poorer Adult Health

By Tiffany Parnell
Monday, January 30, 2017

It is well-established that low socioeconomic status (SES) during childhood can negatively influence health throughout the adult years. Recent research published in Annals of Behavioral Medicine suggests attachment orientation may be a mediator of this phenomenon.

Low childhood SES has been linked to a wide range of health concerns in adulthood, from increased risk of heart disease to lower self-reported health, higher rates of infectious illnesses, such as the common cold, and even greater risk of premature death, according to a literature review in Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences.

“These associations are independent of traditional risk factors, such as poor health practices and a lack of access to medical resources,” says Sheldon Cohen, PhD, University Professor of Psychology at Carnegie Mellon University. “In most cases, they also withstand controls for adult SES, thus suggesting that childhood SES sets a health trajectory early in life and its association with adult health is not just attributable to low-SES children becoming low-SES adults.”

Although the evidence connecting low childhood SES and poor adult health is clear, the exact mechanisms by which childhood SES contributes to adult health are less certain.

“One explanation for these associations is that low-SES environments may alter biological systems early in life when the nervous, endocrine and immune systems are still plastic,” Cohen says. “These changes have permanent implications for disease susceptibility in adults.”

A 2013 study published in Brain, Behavior and Immunity found that adults who grew up in low-SES households in which parents did not own a home have shorter telomeres in their CD8+CD28- leukocyte cells. Telomere length in these cells is related to aging, and in younger, healthier adults, shorter telomere length may translate to a higher risk of infectious disease. The authors of the study concluded that telomere length may be a partial mediator for the higher rates of infectious disease observed in adults who grew up in low-SES homes. Other hypothesized mechanisms include decreased access to health care early in life.

The authors of the Annals of Behavioral Medicine study, however, believe the association may have another root: attachment orientation.

“Early experiences matter a lot. So, investing in early daycare, investing in helping parents who might not have the means to give quality care to their child because they’re working three jobs — that kind of stuff isn’t just important in the moment. It really affects people across the lifespan.”
— Christopher Fagundes, PhD, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Rice University and senior author of the Annals of Behavioral Medicine study

Attachment Theory

A decades-old theory developed by psychologists John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth, attachment theory posits that the early bonds infants and toddlers form with caregivers are strong predictors of social and emotional growth and development, according to The Brookings Institution. The theory holds that children form either secure or insecure attachments with their caregivers. Insecure attachments can manifest as either attachment anxiety or attachment avoidance.

“Attachment anxiety represents the degree to which one fears abandonment, so someone high on attachment anxiety would worry that their partner or caregiver may leave them,” says Kyle Murdock, PhD, postdoctoral research fellow in psychology at Rice University and the study’s first author. “Attachment avoidance is the degree to which someone feels comfortable being close with other people. Someone high on attachment avoidance would feel very uncomfortable being close to someone. ... The general idea is, if you’re high on either or both of those dimensions, you are more likely to experience stress in your everyday life.”

Children in low-SES households are believed to form insecure attachments more frequently for a variety of reasons. For example, parents may work multiple jobs or longer hours and, thus, have less time to spend with their children. To determine the role attachment orientation may play in facilitating the relationship between low childhood SES and poor adult health, researchers from Rice University analyzed data from Pittsburgh Cold Study 3. Also known as The Common Cold Project, Pittsburgh Cold Study 3 obtained self-reported information about measures such as childhood SES and adult health from 213 healthy participants who live in the Pittsburgh area.

Study results supported earlier findings showing a direct link between low childhood SES and poor self-reported adult health. Adults whose childhood SES ranked in the bottom 25 percent had 65 percent poorer adult health regardless of their current SES. Beyond providing an additional layer of evidence for the SES-adult health association, the study found that attachment anxiety may be a partial mediator of this association. Low childhood SES was linked with higher levels of attachment anxiety, which is related to higher levels of stress throughout the lifespan. The higher respondents rated their stress levels, the poorer their overall self-reported health. This pathway was observed only for attachment anxiety.

“The important piece that this adds to the literature is that attachment orientation and, specifically, attachment anxiety may be one of the underlying mechanisms between socioeconomic status and poor health later in life,” Murdock says. “... Fear of abandonment and the stress associated with that could be driving [this] effect.”