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Family ties a key to good health

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SAN FRANCISCO, Aug 26, 2003 (United Press International via COMTEX) -- Family reunions can be both joyous and nerve-racking occasions. They provide us with the opportunity to assume our place within a larger clan and to connect with our family histories -- a process that can provide us a sense of purpose and comfort us during hard times.

Yet familial relationships also can be stressful and alienating experiences. Though we might share our DNA with our families, that does not mean we always find common ground. Our politics, lifestyles and interests might not be always in sync with our extended family's, and at times our closest kin can feel like the most distant strangers.

Now, new research suggests our ability to navigate gracefully through the treacherous territory of familial relationships could produce an unexpected payoff: Strong family relationships translate into better health outcomes -- the ties that bind us, it turns out, can also heal us.

A study by University of California, San Francisco, researchers found heart surgery patients with strong family ties had better and more rapid recoveries than patients who reported weak family ties before their surgery. The patients with the strongest relationships also reported lower rates of depression and anxiety.

"When the spouse of the patient estimated family functioning as good, the patient had better physical and mental health outcomes," lead author Sally Rankin, associate professor of UCSF's School of Nursing, told United Press International.

A second study by Rankin, conducted through Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, showed heart attack patients who had never married faired worse after surgery than patients who had a spouse to support and care for them. Moreover, unmarried female patients fared better in their recoveries than their male counterparts, primarily because they found alternative means of social support through friends and family.

"The men had worse outcomes in terms of morbidity and in terms of mortality than the women. Women are able to form these important social ties in their lives, whereas men are really disadvantaged by not having these ties over time, and it showed up at the time that they had their heart attack," Rankin explained.

A support network can aid recovery and healing in different ways, said Catherine (Kit) Chesla, an associate professor at UCSF's Department of Family Health Care Nursing.

Her research shows two types of family connectedness play a role in patient health outcomes: organized cohesiveness -- or how well a family functions in terms of workload and tasks -- and emotional cohesiveness. Chesla found diabetic patients who reported highly functional and strong familial relationships had better health outcomes than those who reported weak connections. But she also found patients who had greater emotional closeness faired better than those who had only organizationally strong ties.

"The strongest measure we had of emotional closeness is couples' ability to resolve conflict. We found this to be a very powerful predictor of how people did with their diabetes," Chesla told UPI.

Our ability to form close bonds with family may actually play a role in not only treating but also preventing disease. A study by researchers at the National Jewish Medical and Research Center in Denver concluded adolescents who have knowledge of their family histories tend to take fewer health risks.

The researchers measured young women's knowledge of their families' pasts and the amount of contact they had with relatives on a monthly basis. They compared this information with the women's sexual risk-taking behavior and found women who had knowledge of their family histories -- even when those histories were fraught with tragedy -- faired better than subjects who knew little about their pasts.

"Both knowledge of stories and family contact was correlated negatively with sexual risk taking behavior," said lead author Dr. Judith Landau, president of Linking Human Systems in Boulder, Colo., a family counseling firm.

The findings were supported by researchers at Dallas' Parkland Memorial Hospital who showed mother-daughter closeness influenced adolescent minority girls smoking behavior. The more connected the African-American teens felt to their mothers, the less likely they were to take up smoking.

More and more research supports the notion that establishing meaningful bonds with family members plays a key role in maintaining and augmenting mental and physical health.

At times connecting with our families might seem burdensome -- in particular if we live far apart geographically. But cultivating strong relationships with our partners and kin is more important than ever, especially during these turbulent economic and political times, Landau said.

"We use the knowledge about where we come from to make deliberate choices about what we choose to take from the past. When we don't have that knowledge we have a sense of alienation, of being disconnected from anything of meaning," she told UPI.

"If we can enhance positive connectedness to family and country of origin we're going to do a great deal in terms of prevention and treatment of disease."

Copyright 2003 by United Press International.

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