Parental PTSD affects health behaviour and ageing among offspring of Holocaust survivors

January 24, 2019 by Elana Oberlander
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A new study on intergenerational transmission of trauma has found evidence that Holocaust survivors suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and their adult offspring exhibit more unhealthy behaviour patterns and age less successfully in comparison to survivors with no signs of PTSD or parents who did not experience the Holocaust and their offspring. 

Amit Shrira

Now that they are mostly middle-aged or older adults, offspring of Holocaust survivors may be assessed to determine whether ancestral trauma lingers on to affect their ageing process.  The results can provide important data not just about Holocaust survivors and their offspring, but also in general about ageing individuals who were exposed to massive trauma.

Prof. Amit Shrira, of Bar-Ilan University’s Interdisciplinary Department of Social Sciences, studied more than 187 dyads of parents, including some who survived the Holocaust and some who weren’t exposed to the Holocaust, and their adult offspring (374 individuals in total).

Shrira found that Holocaust survivors with signs of PTSD and their offspring reported more unhealthy behaviour, such as smoking, alcohol consumption, and lack of physical activity, compared to those with no signs of PTSD or no exposure to the Holocaust and their offspring.  Additionally, Holocaust survivors with signs of PTSD and their offspring reported more medical conditions and disability, which suggests a less successful ageing process. The results were recently published in the journal Psychiatry Research.

“There is much evidence that traumatic exposure can mould the way survivors’ age.  Holocaust survivors who suffer from PTSD tend to engage in unhealthy behaviour and transmit this behaviour to their offspring, which influences their health and functioning in later years,” said Shrira.

What causes the intergenerational transmission of trauma is still unclear, but Shrira says there is initial evidence that biological mechanisms are involved in the process.

The majority of offspring of Holocaust survivors developed into fully functioning and healthy people, according to Shrira, but specific groups at higher risk of developing mental and physical morbidity must be pinpointed in order to offer them suitable interventions that will lessen their suffering.

The current findings suggest that unhealthy behaviours should be assessed among offspring of Holocaust survivors, especially among those whose parents suffer from PTSD, and this carries important clinical implications.  Screening of offspring patients should cover cigarette use, alcohol consumption, drug use, exercise and eating habits. In cases where unhealthy behaviours are identified, practitioners should provide information about related health risks and initiate treatment to interrupt negative health behaviours.

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