How do you achieve a long and healthy life? Cut down the calories and up the exercise, sure. And you needed to give up the cigarettes (and limit the booze too) years ago.

But what if our health in later life is also affected by our happiness when we’re a child? That’s the finding of new research published by the American Psychological Association in the journal Health Psychology. People who have fond memories of childhood and relationships with their parents in particular, tend to have better health, less depression and fewer chronic illnesses as older adults.

“We know that memory plays a huge part in how we make sense of the world — how we organize our past experiences and how we judge how we should act in the future. As a result, there are a lot of different ways that our memories of the past can guide us,” William J. Chopik, PhD said in a news release. Based at Michigan State University, Chopik was a lead author on the study. “We found that good memories seem to have a positive effect on health and well-being, possibly through the ways that they reduce stress or help us maintain healthy choices in life.”

It Starts Young

Previous research had already illustrated a positive relationship between memories and health in young adults, including higher quality of work and personal relationships, lower substance abuse and depression, and fewer health problems. But Chopik and co-author Robin Edelstein, PhD, from the University of Michigan, wanted to see how this would apply to older people.

Another curio of earlier studies was that it tended to focus on mothers, rarely examining the role of fathers in child development. Chopik and Edelstein wanted to look at relationships with both parents.

For their data, the two researchers turned to the National Survey of Midlife Development in the United States and the Health and Retirement Study, which together totalled more than 22,000 participants aged from their mid-40s upwards.

Participants in both groups who remembered higher levels of affection from their mothers during childhood experienced better physical health and fewer depressive symptoms later in life. Similarly, kids who received more support from their fathers experienced fewer depressive symptoms.

Memories Don’t Fade

Key to the findings was that they ran counter to the researchers’ theory that the effects of how people are raised when children would matter less over time, particularly when participants were trying to recall something that might have happened 50 years in the past. “But these memories still predicted better physical and mental health when people were in middle age and older adulthood,” Chopik said.

Another quirk of the results was the stronger association in people who reported a more loving relationship with their mother, Chopik putting this down to older cultural norms where women often played the role of primary caregiver.

One aspect of the research that remained a mystery was the effect positive childhood memories had on chronic conditions. There was a relationship in the first study but not in second. Chopik reckons this might because chronic conditions were rare in both samples and suggests it an area for future research.

Either way, the study further underlines the importance of caring for children, particularly when negative experiences during childhood could still be being felt decades later.