Study on Holocaust survivors suggests parental PTSD impacts successful aging among offspring

A new study on survivors of the Nazi concentration camps and their children has found evidence that the consequences of trauma can be passed down to one’s offspring.

“I was always fascinated by the question of whether ancestral trauma effects subsequent generations who were not directly exposed to it,” said study author Amit Shrira of Bar-Ilan University.

“As offspring of Holocaust survivors are mostly middle aged or older adults, it is now possible to assess whether ancestral trauma lingers on to affect their aging process. Such studies have implications not only for Holocaust survivors and their offspring, but also to other aging individuals who were exposed to massive trauma.”

For his study, which was published in the journal Psychiatry Research, Shrira examined 187 dyads of parents and their adult offspring (374 individuals in total). More than 100 of these dyads included parents who had survived the Holocaust, while the other dyads served as a control group.

Shrira found that Holocaust survivors who showed signs of post-traumatic stress disorder tended to reported more unhealthy behaviors compared to survivors who didn’t show signs of PTSD. The same was true of their offspring. These unhealthy behaviors included things such as smoking, alcohol consumption, and lack of physical activity.

Holocaust survivors who showed signs of PTSD and their offspring also had higher levels of chronic disease and disability, suggesting less successful aging.

“There is much evidence that traumatic exposure can mold the way survivors’ age. This study further demonstrates that the way people age is also related to parental trauma and parental PTSD,” he explained to PsyPost.

“Moreover, the study shows that this happens through the transmission of unhealthy behaviors. That is, Holocaust survivors who suffer from PTSD tend to engage in unhealthy behaviors, these behaviors continue among their offspring and therefore affect offspring health and functioning in old age.”

But it is still unclear exactly what causes the intergenerational transmission of Holocaust trauma.

“We still need to understand additional pathways through which parental trauma and PTSD affect offspring. For example, there is already initial evidence that biological mechanisms are also involved in transmission of trauma,” Shrira explained.

“For example, parental stress and PTSD are related to epigenetic modulation among offspring, this brings about dysregulation in various bodily systems, and we have reasons to suspect such dysregulation ultimately leads to medical conditions and impaired functioning in old age.”

“The majority of offspring of Holocaust survivors developed into fully functioning and healthy people,” Shrira added. “However, there are specific groups who are at higher risk of developing mental and physical morbidity, and we need to pinpoint these groups and offer them suitable interventions that will ameliorate their suffering.”

The study was titled: “Parental PTSD, health behaviors and successful aging among offspring of Holocaust survivors“.