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Childhood Attachment and Loss Experiences Affect Adult Cardiovascular and Cortisol Function

Luecken, Linda J. PhD

Original Articles

Objective This study proposes to test the hypothesis that early loss of a parent, coupled with poor quality family relationships, would result in long-term increased cardiovascular and cortisol reactivity to stress.

Methods Subjects included 30 university students who lost one parent before age 16, and 31 control subjects. Blood pressure (BP) was measured continuously during 5-minute baseline and recovery periods, and during each of 2 tasks-viewing a 7-minute video clip depicting the death of a parent, and giving a 3-minute impromptu speech (1-hour rest between tasks). Salivary cortisol samples were collected immediately before each task, and at 5 and 20 minutes posttask. Quality of family relationships (FR) was measured using the Moos Family Environment Scale.

Results Repeated-measures analysis of covariance revealed significant main effects on BP of both parental loss and FR for both tasks (all p values < .05) such that subjects who lost a parent or reported poor quality FR showed higher BP across all periods. The loss by FR by period interaction was not significant. An FR by period interaction was found for cortisol during the movie, in which poor quality FR subjects showed increased cortisol, whereas all others showed decreases. A loss by period interaction was found for cortisol during the speech, in which cortisol increased in loss subjects and decreased in non-loss subjects.

Conclusions These findings indicate that both childhood loss of a parent and poor quality of caretaking are associated with long-term increases in BP and altered neurohormonal responses to stress.

From the Duke University Medical Center, Department of Psychiatry, Behavioral Medicine Research Center, Durham, North Carolina.

Address reprint requests to: Redford Williams, MD, Box 3926, Duke University Medical Center, Durham, NC 27710. E:mail:

Received for publication July 30, 1997; revision received July 6, 1998.

Copyright © 1998 by American Psychosomatic Society
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