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  • Posted September 1, 2023

When Parent Is in Prison, Kids' Heart Risks Rise

Along with having to deal with the social stigma of having a parent who is incarcerated, young adults in that situation may be more likely to develop signs of heart trouble, a new study finds.

The health impacts of having a parent who spent time in jail have been understudied, the researchers noted.

"There was very little data on its association with cardiovascular risks,” said lead author Dr. Elizabeth Tung, an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Chicago. “We set out to fill that gap in understanding."

Her team analyzed data from over 9,600 young adults between the ages of 33 and 44 in the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health.

They found that 14.1% of all participants, but 21.4% of Black participants, reported having been exposed to a parent or parental figure in jail during childhood.

Unfortunately, these participants were more likely than their peers to develop high blood pressure in adulthood. They also had higher levels of high-sensitivity C-reactive protein (CRP), a marker of inflammation that health experts use to estimate risk of future cardiovascular events.

In this study, researchers did not find a correlation between parental jail time and other markers of cardiovascular risk they examined, such as diabetes, high cholesterol and heart disease. Tung noted those markers are more likely to emerge in middle age and later.

“From a societal perspective, it's important to consider our approach to incarceration in the U.S. and how racial disparities in incarceration may be contributing to health disparities," Tung said in a university new release.

Tung also pointed to resources that may be helpful for families, including specialists who provide legal support and connections to social services and public benefits. This may help with the economic insecurities that arise when a parent is in prison. Clinicians can also offer family counseling and mental health resources to affected children.

Tung said her group's findings should encourage health care practitioners to factor in the impact of a parent in prison on family health.

Questions about this may be less accepted due to the stigma currently associated with serving jail time, she noted.

“As a society, we have a responsibility to de-stigmatize parental incarceration, to remove shame-based pressures, and instead address these issues with a focus on public health rather than criminality,” Tung said.

The group plans to explore connections between parental incarceration and other critical dimensions of public health, including social isolation and mental health outcomes such as suicide.

The findings were published Aug. 30 in the journal JAMA Cardiology.

More information

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has more on social determinants of health.

SOURCE: University of Chicago Medicine, news release, Aug. 30, 2023

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