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Parents are better able to fight off cold viruses, study finds

Parents are less likely than their childless peers to “catch” the illness

Parenthood may give people a greater resistance to the common cold, according to a study published in the July issue of Psychosomatic Medicine.

Led by psychologists at Carnegie Mellon University, in Pittsburgh, Pa., a team of researchers have found that parents are about half as likely to develop an upper respiratory infection after being exposed to a cold virus than people without children.

This finding doesn’t mean that parents come down with fewer colds than non-parents. It only suggests that when exposed to new cold viruses, parents are less likely than their childless peers to “catch” the illness and start sneezing, coughing and otherwise feeling miserable.

First look at the issue

Needless to say, the study’s findings are somewhat provocative. They also add to the inconsistent findings from other research that has looked into the effect of parenthood on health. Studies have found, for example, that parents report being angrier, more  depressed and anxious and less happy and satisfied with their lives than non-parents, even when the parents’ marital and socioeconomic status are taken into account. On the positive side, parents have been found to have a lower risk of suicide and heart disease.

Yet surprisingly — and despite the fact that parents, especially those with children in school or day care, tend to be exposed to more respiratory viruses than other people — no one until now had done a study that looked at the relationship between parenthood and the most prevalent of all illnesses, the common cold.

“When we went into the study, we had two different theories of how it would turn out,” said Rodlescia Sneed, a Carnegie Mellon graduate student and the study’s lead author, in a phone interview with MinnPost. Either parenting-related stress might suppress the immune system, leaving parents more susceptible to cold viruses, or the positive benefits of parenting, including stronger social support systems, might make the parents more resistant to the viruses, she explained.

There was also the possibility, of course, that parents had built up greater resistance to cold viruses due to exposure to the pathogens through their children.

Participants were quarantined

Rodlescia Sneed
psy.cmu.edu
Rodlescia Sneed

For the study (a link to the study’s abstract is not yet available), Sneed and her colleagues analyzed data from three separate experiments that had been conducted between 1993 and 2004. Those experiments involved 795 healthy adults, aged 18 to 55, who were brought into a controlled setting where they were exposed to a cold virus and quarantined for up to a week. The participants were tested beforehand to make sure they had no antibodies — and, thus, no immunity — to the virus. During the study, the presence of a cold was determined not just by symptoms, but also by testing nasal secretions for the virus. Slightly more than 40 percent of the participants were parents; they had an average of 2.38 children.

The data revealed that parents with one or two children were 48 percent less likely to get sick than their childless peers. The protection was even greater for those with three or more children: 61 percent. It didn’t matter if the children still lived at home or not. The parents were still less likely to develop a cold.

Psychological factors may be at play

Sneed said she and her colleagues are unable to explain why parenthood was associated with fewer colds. Although parents tend to have broader social networks than non-parents, that factor did not account for the relationship. Neither did such behavioral factors as tobacco use, alcohol use and sleep habits.

“There are a lot of psychological variables that we weren’t able to measure in this study that might be possible explanations,” Sneed said. Parents might, for example, have a greater sense of purpose or not feel as lonely as people without children. As Sneed and her colleagues point out in their study, other research has uncovered an association between emotions and people’s resistance — or non-resistance — to common cold viruses.

There was one group of parents in the current study, however, who did not show an increased resistance to cold viruses: those aged 18 to 24. The researchers don’t know why this younger cohort of parents was not protected. “It is possible that the youngest parents may be unready psychologically and economically to fulfill the parental role and hence do not accrue the benefits that older parents do,” they write in their conclusion. “Younger parents are also likely to have younger children … who require more attention. Alternatively as parents age, they may put more emphasis on the positive aspects of parenthood and less on the negative ones.”

Still, for most parents, this study offers some comforting news. “If you’re feeling stressed out from being a parent, the one good thing we can tell you is that it protects you against colds,” said Sneed.

Now, if only it could also protect you from sleepless nights.

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