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Baby’s health tied to a mother’s value for family

Cleopatra Abdou studied more than 4,500 women, gauging their “familism,” or their beliefs about familial roles and responsibilities, using a questionnaire. (Photo/Robert Whitehead)

The value that an expectant mother places on family — regardless of the reality of her own family situation — predicts the birth weight of her baby and whether the child will develop asthma symptoms three years later, according to new research from USC.

The findings suggest that one’s culture is a resource that can provide tangible physical health benefits.

“We know that social support has profound health implications. Yet, in this case, this is more a story of beliefs than of actual family support,” said Cleopatra Abdou, assistant professor at the USC Davis School of Gerontology.

Abdou studied 4,633 socioeconomically disadvantaged white, black and Hispanic women, gauging their “familism,” or, more specifically, their beliefs about familial roles and responsibilities, using a questionnaire. Familism was determined by responses to statement such as “Single moms can do just as well as married parents,” or “It is better for children if their parents are married.”

Abdou then tracked the health of the children and found that for every one-point increase in familism, there was a 71-gram increase in birth weight independent of a whole host of other factors — including the gender of the infant or whether the mother was married. (For context, average birth weight in the United States is around 7.5 pounds, or roughly 3,400 grams. Low birth weight, typically defined as under 5.5 pounds or 2,500 grams, has been linked to health problems later in life.) Higher familism also predicted lower rates of asthma in the children up to three years later.

Though one might expect to see healthier children from mothers who reported strong family support, familism is a cultural measure that exists outside of an individual’s actual circumstances.

“Cultural beliefs and ideals can be distinct from one’s present reality,” Abdou said. “Familism is about beliefs and ideals within families. That’s why familism is referred to as a cultural resource. The cultural resource of familism appears to favorably impact both reproductive health in mothers as well as critical markers of physical health in offspring. That is, the transmission of health from one generation to another.”

Abdou’s findings were published online on Nov. 9 in the journal Social Science & Medicine in an article co-authored by Tyan Parker Dominguez of the USC School of Social Work and Hector Myers of the University of California, Los Angeles.

The results may shed light on the so-called “Hispanic Paradox” or “epidemiologic paradox,” first documented in 1986 by Markides and Coreil, which found that immigrant populations in the United States tend to be relatively healthy compared to their peers, despite being poorer.

In general, poorer populations tend to be less healthy than wealthier populations. The epidemiologic paradox diminishes over time, with immigrant populations becoming less and less healthy as they start assimilating into American culture.

Abdou theorizes that U.S.-born populations, in addition to immigrant populations, can benefit in terms of mental and physical health from strong cultural resources, a theory that is supported by this study. Her work continues to probe the connections between health and culture in diverse populations in the United States and the Middle East.

The research was supported by the National Science Foundation, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the National Institutes of Health.

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