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Adolescent relationships important for adult health

Adolescent girls who have strong relationships with their parents and good friendships with boys face fewer risks of health problems as adults, according to new research.

Thom McDade (Northwestern University), a fellow in CIFAR’s Child & Brain Development program, and his team found that adolescent girls with close male friends were up to 16 per cent less likely to develop high blood pressure as adults. Girls with positive relationships with their parents saw their odds reduced by 23 per cent.

“The track that you get on is, in many significant ways for your health, being laid down in adolescence. It’s a particularly important time to establish positive relationships,” McDade says.

The research helps fill out the emerging picture of how, in childhood, elevated stress-related chemicals like cortisol can powerfully affect behaviour and quality of life.

The paper, to be published in the journal Health Psychology, uses data from a 14-year longitudinal study of 11,617 teens, who were interviewed at the beginning of the period and then provided blood samples at the end.

The benefits skew towards females. As the study notes, women have stronger physiological responses to negative social experiences. “Girls are socialized to care more about social relationships,” McDade observes, adding that it’s possible that hormonal systems may impact the mechanism that links positive relationships to physiological outcomes. “This is a fertile area for future research.”

From a policy perspective, the findings suggest the importance of creating positive social relationships as well as understanding the consequences of negative ones – a topic that tends to get more attention from educators and other professionals who work with adolescents. Policy moves from anti-bullying campaigns to improved childcare could help reduce stress within families, McDade says.

Eventually, he says, the investment will pay off in reduced healthcare costs.

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