WEDNESDAY, Aug. 6, 2014 (HealthDay News) -- Adults whose childhood included having a family member in prison are about 15 percent more likely to have poor physical and mental health than those who didn't, a new study showed.
The findings suggest that the high rate of imprisonment in the United States may be contributing to long-term health problems in some families, the researchers noted.
"These people were children when this happened, and it was a significant disruptive event. That disruptive event has long-term adverse consequences," study author Annie Gjelsvik, an assistant professor of epidemiology in the Brown University School of Public Health, said in a university news release.
They analyzed data from more than 81,000 American adults, and found that almost 7 percent of them grew up in homes where an adult family member spent time in prison.
This increased risk was independent of other types of childhood problems such as: emotional, physical and sexual abuse; parental separation or divorce, exposure to domestic violence or substance abuse; and having a family member with mental illness.
Although the researchers found a link between having an incarcerated family member in childhood and poor overall health later, they were not able to show that having relatives in jail during one's youth was a direct cause of poor health later in life.
The study was published recently in the Journal of Healthcare for the Poor and Underserved.
In an earlier study, Gjelsvik and her team found that adults who grew up in homes where a family member was imprisoned were more likely to be smokers and heavy drinkers.
The findings suggest that alternatives to prison for nonviolent offenders could spare some children a lifetime of poor health, Gjelsvik said.
"I'm not saying don't incarcerate people. But we need to allow our system to use judgment and to use innovative and evidence-based programs," she added.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention outlines how to raise safe and healthy children.
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