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updated 9/30/2011 1:07:37 PM ET 2011-09-30T17:07:37

An extra dose of motherly nurturing insulates children from lifelong health problems associated with poverty, a new study says.

The study found that people whose parents did not finish high school were 1.4 times more likely to develop a condition called metabolic syndrome by middle age than children raised by college-educated parents. Metabolic syndrome is a precursor to diabetes and heart disease.

However, among people from less-educated households, those who said they had a very nurturing mother were less likely to develop metabolic syndrome, according to the study published Friday (Sept. 23) in the journal Psychological Science. A nurturing mother in a more educated household had no effect on the likelihood that her adult children had developed metabolic syndrome.

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Parents' education can be a more reliable indicator of a child's home life than family income, said Lisa Berkman, director of the Harvard Center for Population and Development Studies. Families may fall into low income because of unlucky circumstances such as illness, but still have some of the protective benefits education seems to bring to households.

Researchers "often look at education, because it makes a stronger case," said Berkman, who was not involved with the new study.

Low income and lack of education are often tied to poor health, but the study suggests that the connections between socioeconomic status and chronic health conditions are not as clear as the effects of genetics and lifestyle, the researchers said.

Still, it was striking to see a disadvantaged childhood could manifest in physical disease, said Margie Lachman, a co-author of the new study.

"It [childhood experience] shows up under the skin and in the body as an important risk factor," said Lachman, who is the director of the Lifespan Initiative on Healthy Aging at Brandeis University.

Education is not the whole story

A team of researchers mined data from a subset of 1,200 participants in the decade-long National Survey of Midlife Development in the United States (MIDUS) looking for correlations between socioeconomic status as a child and the risk of metabolic syndrome as an adult. The adult participants filled out questionnaires about their parents' behaviors, and researchers checked their blood pressure, blood sugar, stomach fat and other signs of metabolic syndrome.

Previous results from MIDUS showed adults' education levels influence their risk for disability, memory and cognitive reasoning problems, said Lachman, one of the principle investigators on the MIDUS study.

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"But not everybody who has low education does poorly in these areas," Lachman said.

The study showed that parents' education level was not the single determining factor in children's health: half of children in the least-educated households grew up to develop metabolic syndrome by middle age, but 31 percent of children from college-educated households developed metabolic syndrome, too.

And adults from a disadvantaged household who went on to earn higher degrees were still more likely to develop metabolic syndrome than those raised in more-educated households.

Nurturing, the results implied, could be one difference that explains why some people go on to live healthy lives despite their circumstances, and others don't.

The researchers measured parental nurturing with survey questions such as "How much did she/he understand your problems and worries?" or "How much time and attention did she/he give you when you needed it?"

The researchers said that this type of study cannot prove why or how a nurturing mother protects her children's health over the long term.  Yet previous studies have shown "nurturant caregivers imbue children with the sense that the world is a safe place and others can be trusted," the authors from the University of British Columbia and the University of California Los Angeles wrote in the discussion.

"These beliefs may enable disadvantaged youngsters to read less threat into their social worlds, with a consequent reduction in the wear-and-tear such vigilance can place on bodily systems," they wrote.

Fathers' nurturing was found not to have an effect in the study, and authors hypothesized that either mothers have a unique contribution to children's health, or that gender roles during the participants' childhood after World War II could have influenced the results.

A 'constant test' for moms

Studies have found good social ties and stable income lead to better health, Berkman said.

"When you have neither of them you are at double jeopardy," she said.

And while improving education and socioeconomic status would likely help children grow up to be healthier adults, Berkman said there are also policy changes to family leave laws and flexible work schedules that could give families the opportunity to be more nurturing at home.

"Mothers in almost all cases try really hard. We live in a country where it's a constant test, and it's more of a constant test for those who have the least resources," Berkman said.

Pass it on: Moms who provide extra nurturing and comfort may also be giving their kids lifelong protection against chronic disease.

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