UI researcher links strain of relationship with family to illness

Researchers at the University of Iowa looked at the quality of family and romantic relationships to see their effect on health and have determined that familial relationships affect overall health more.


Tate Hildyard

University of Iowa Assistant Professor, Jacob Priest poses for a portrait in the Lindquist Center on Wednesday, December 11th, 2019. Priest’s research examines specific interactions that lead to increased stress and how it results in chronic and acute illness.

Jacob Shafer, News Reporter

A University of Iowa professor is proving that people who claim to become sick or experience stress due to strained relationships within the family — their parents, siblings, or grandparents — may be telling the truth.

Jacob Priest, an assistant professor at the UI, has conducted research studying how stress and strain in relationships, especially between family members, can cause someone to get sick.

Priest said his research aims to discover who matters more for a person’s health: a romantic relationship or anyone with an extended family member.

“We determined that family has a larger effect on your health,” Priest said. “More specifically, the quality of your family relationship has more impact on your health than a romantic relationship.”

Priest said that the relationship strain, or how frequently someone argues with another, is the stress his team observed in family and romantic relationships. He added that they also looked at family support and the ability to rely on or turn to family for help when faced with a problem.

“I think the study can give us information for students,” Priest said. “Some students are looking forward to going home for break to a supportive family to get recharged and to reconnect. But some students may be dreading coming home and those relationships might cause them stress and strain, which could be detrimental to their health.”

There are things people can do to try and strengthen their family relationships and reduce stress, Priest said. When a student goes home for winter break, they can use that time to build connections with family. Doing things together can build the foundation of the relationship so that family can have those hard conversations and make the difficult easier for them, he said.

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“In our study we looked at mid-life adults, mid-thirties to mid-fifties,” Priest said. “But for students in particular, we also know that stress can lead to making your immune system more susceptible to illnesses like the flu. So if you leave a stressful semester at school to go home to a stressful home environment, that can make it easier to get a cold.”

UI sophomore Sean Parks said he wants to connect with his family over break by spending time together and watching movies. He said his family tries to build the foundation of its relationship by sitting together, telling stories, and hearing about everyone’s lives outside of the family.

“I make sure I have a quality relationship with my family by being upfront with them,” Parks said. “I try to make sure I make time for them when I can and especially on breaks from school.”

UI junior Pete Laubenthal said his parents have always been the people he can turn with a tough conversation.

“As I have been away from school,” Laubenthal said, “I have noticed that it’s often simple things [that] help prevent a familial relationship from turning sour. A weekly phone call can work wonders.”

They are always willing to hear his side of the story, Laubenthal said, and more often than not tell him exactly what’s wrong.

“When we think about health, we often think about nutrition and exercise, and those things are really important, but it’s also really important to give the same importance to your family relationships and romantic relationships,” Priest said. “Trying to maintain a healthy relationship is really important.”