Debra Umberson, a professor of sociology and a faculty associate in the Population Research Center at The University of Texas at Austin, said the findings help explain why African-American men are less healthy than white men.
"Exposure to childhood adversity might cause stress and lead to a sequence of stressors over time that take a cumulative toll on relationships," Umberson said in a statement. "In addition, childhood adversity might trigger an enduring pattern of psychological and physiological vulnerability to stress that undermines relationships in adulthood. Past research, including some of my own, has shown that bad relationships often lead to worse physical health."
The study used data from a nationally representative longitudinal survey of both blacks and whites male and female age 25 and older. The participants were interviewed four times during a 15-year period and answered questions about their past childhood problems, adult stress and quality of adult relationships.
The study, published in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior, found African-American men were exposed to 28 percent more childhood adversity than white men. The impact of these negative life events on adult relationships is three times as strong compared with white men, the researchers said.
"This pathway from childhood adversity to lower quality relationships in adulthood explains part of the race disparity in health among men, something that has not been recognized in previous research," Umberson said.
The study also showed white women were healthier than black women. However, the researchers found neither childhood adversity nor the quality of relationships in adulthood explained much of the racial disparity in health between these two groups.
"I was surprised that childhood adversity had such a minor impact on black women's health in adulthood, especially since the effect was so strong for black men," Umberson said. "I think this is best explained by women's tendency to seek out social contact in response to stress. Generally speaking, women tend to have more close relationships and to share their feelings with others. This is true for black and white women. Supportive relationships protect health."