Parents, researchers tell us, are less likely to get the cold or the flu than non-parents. And not just a smidge less likely. 52 whopping percent.
That doesn't jibe with your reality either, huh? The one where you started sneezing when your oldest started preschool, and haven't put down the Kleenex since. The one where you drag yourself to work regularly with a fever because you used all your sick days taking care of the child whose germs you are now battling?
I was still coughing from the remnants of the latest bronchial storm to hit my house when I called Sheldon Cohen, the Carnegie Mellon psychoneuroimmunologist whose findings are to appear in an upcoming issue of the journal Psychosomatic Medicine, to explain that he must have miscalculated somewhere. (That link is to the journal. The article itself is not yet online.)
Do you HAVE children, I asked him.
No, he answered, and I felt smug.
"We didn't expect these results either," he said, then began to define his terms.
His conclusion, he said, is not that parents are sick less often than non-parents. That, he agreed, would be ridiculous. (I felt a little better. Or, at least, a little vindicated.)
What he found was that when exposed to the same virus, parents are 52 percent less likely to become ill from that exposure, meaning they are more likely to fight off the infection. He knows this because over the past decade or so he and his collaborators have exposed nearly 800 people to the virus that causes the common cold. The subjects were quarantined and observed to see who became sick.
The research started with two opposite theories, he says. First, that parents "have more stressors in their lives and there's lots of evidence" that stress negatively affects the immune system. That would lead one to believe that parents would be more susceptible to germs.
On the other hand, he said, there "are positive psychological affects of parenting -- a sense of purpose, it grows your social network, and we know that those things promote health."
The results would support the conclusion that the psychological benefits trump the stressors when it comes to battling back a cold, he said, adding "just think how much MORE often parents would get sick than they already do" without this immunological boost.
I coughed a few times and asked whether this germ fighting power was equal among all parents, or were some more armored by their "sense of purpose" than others?
It seemed to have little effect on the youngest of parents, he said, defined as those between the ages of 18 and 23, and he theorized that "this reflects the added stressors on young parents -- the economic stresses are greater, they don't have as much of a support network." On the other hand, he said, there is a far greater immunologic effect on parents whose children are no longer living at home -- who have the satisfactions of having children, but not the daily juggle. That group of parents, he said, is 73 percent less likely than non-parents to become ill after exposure to germs.
In other words, the best way to fight a cold is to have children and wait for them to move out.
And then I thought of the 800 research subjects who agreed to be quarantined for six days with the possibility of getting a cold. Who ARE they? I wondered. How did you find parents who could lock themselves away from their children for a week in exchange for what Cohen said is the going rate of $600-$1000?
Could it be, I theorized, that they were parents so exhausted that the idea of a lab-induced virus sounded like a vacation? And could the boost in their immune system come from the fact that the lab accommodations allowed for a full night's sleep? Perhaps if the studies could somehow be conducted at home, in the far from controlled environment most of us live in, researchers might find that parents are walking petri-dishes, converting from exposed to symptomatic almost constantly. Which is, of course, the way it feels.
Now those would be results that would make me feel better.