Unexplained Parental Illnesses May Predispose Children to Similar Fate

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Dec 17, 1999 (Baltimore) -- People whose parents seemed to suffer from nonspecific or unexplained illnesses when they were children suffer such illnesses themselves, reports a study in the November issue of the American Journal of Psychiatry. "Medically unexplained symptoms appear to be related to prior experience of illness in the family and previous unexplained symptoms in the individual," writes Matthew Hotopf, MB, MRC Psych, MSc, the study's lead researcher. "This may reflect a learned process whereby illness experience leads to symptom monitoring."

This study is part of a very large study following several thousand people born in England, Scotland, or Wales during one week in 1946. At 19 different times since then, either the subjects enrolled in the study or their parents have been surveyed using questionnaires. Data have been gathered on socioeconomic status, highest education level, marital status, and the incidence of illnesses among study participants and their parents, as well as other variables.

"There were strong relationships between the outcome [of unexplained illnesses] and parental ill health," Hotopf writes. This was after the researchers controlled for sociodemographic variables and psychiatric disorders.

"What they are saying is that when children are exposed to parents who complain of physical symptoms that are not due to a specific illness, the children are more likely to have the same or similar complaints," says Simeon Margolis, MD, PhD, professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, who reviewed the study for WebMD. "I think this is possible, but this study does not convince me."

Margolis has several criticisms of the study. "One of the biggest problems I have with this study is that the determination of whether patients' symptoms were explained or not was made by a team of psychiatrists and was based on the questionnaires, not a physical examination. I'm not sure the symptoms would have been unexplained if such an exam were done," he says.

Margolis also says he wonders if unexplained parental illness was simply an illness that was never diagnosed but that may have been inherited by the children.

"I think that the way parents behave has an enormous impact on their children," Margolis says. "If a parent has a headache and goes to bed for four hours in a darkened room, that is teaching their children one way to handle nonspecific illness. I believe that parents should neither make light of or magnify their own illnesses in order to model the best behavior for their children."


Vital Information:

  • Children whose parents suffered from nonspecific or unexplained illnesses are more likely to experience the same problem themselves, according to a new study.
  • Researchers suggest that this phenomenon may reflect a learned process.
  • One criticism of the study is that "unexplained illnesses" were determined by surveys, not by a physical exam.
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