London: Family breakdown is as devastating for today's children as it was when divorce was a source of social disgrace, a new report has warned.

According to the report, even though divorce is no longer considered 'shameful' as it was until the 1970s, the children of broken families continue to suffer destructive effects throughout their lives.

The paper, produced by a team of senior academics, found that the damage caused to a child by divorce continues to blight his or her life as far as old age.

It said parental separation in childhood was 'consistently associated with psychological distress in adulthood during people's early 30s'.

"This seems to be true even across different generations, which suggests that as divorce and separation have become more common, their impact on mental health has not reduced," a daily quoted the report as saying.

It comes a week after figures were published showing that almost half of all children have now seen their parents break up by the time they are 15.

The report said that good health depends on lifestyle conditions that it termed 'social medicines'. Key among these is a stable family background.

The findings undermine the claims of politicians, lawyers and activists who have argued for years that divorce causes no harm to children if parents part amicably and without conflict.

"Family life has undergone dramatic changes over recent decades," the report, produced by a team led by Professor Mel Bartley, said.

"Families no longer have to have two parents, they can contain children from different parents, and parents no longer have to be of different genders.

"More freedom also means less certainty, and this has led to concerns about the impact of family stability on the health and well-being of both children and adults.

"Family living arrangements are related to children's physical health. "Children whose parents remain married throughout the early childhood years are less likely to suffer from breathing problems such as asthma, to become overweight, or to be injured in accidents by the time they are five years old than children who have experienced a more unstable family situation," the report said.

The report also said that the teenage years are "a time when risks accumulated since childhood start to snowball, affecting the behaviour of young people and their timely transition to adulthood."

Tests to check levels of cortisol, a hormone linked to stress, show childhood experiences may affect people through their lives, the report said.

"We have measured cortisol levels in thousands of adults at the age of around 60 to find evidence of long-term effects of psychological stress in childhood," it said.

"People were asked if they had been separated for more than one year from their mothers. The people who had experienced this much separation were found to have higher cortisol levels.

"This tells us that childhood separation appears to result in an increased risk of a less healthy stress response many years later in adulthood.

"People who suffer stresses such as parental divorce in childhood are at a higher risk of social and psychological problems later in their adult lives," the report added.

The study was based on the large-scale British Cohort Studies, which cover people born in 1946, 1958, 1970, and, most recently, in the 2000 Millennium Study. ESRC academics also took into account a series of independent smaller-scale projects. The study has been published by the Government's Economic and Social Research Council.


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