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BACKGROUND: Poor immune function is associated with increased risk for a number of age-related diseases, however, little is known about the impact of early life trauma on immune function in late-life. METHODS: Using nationally representative data from the Health and Retirement Study (n = 5,823), we examined the association between experiencing parental/caregiver death or separation before age 16 and four indicators of immune function in late-life: C-reactive Protein (CRP), Interleukin-6 (IL-6), soluble Tumor Necrosis Factor (sTNFR), and Immunoglobulin G (IgG) response to cytomegalovirus (CMV). We also examined racial/ethnic differences. FINDINGS: Individuals that identified as racial/ethnic minorities were more likely to experience parental/caregiver loss and parental separation in early life compared to Non-Hispanic Whites, and had poorer immune function in late-life. We found consistent associations between experiencing parental/caregiver loss and separation and poor immune function measured by CMV IgG levels and IL-6 across all racial/ethnic subgroups. For example, among Non-Hispanic Blacks, those that experienced parental/caregiver death before age 16 had a 26% increase in CMV IgG antibodies in late-life (β = 1.26; 95% CI: 1.17, 1.34) compared to a 3% increase in CMV antibodies among Non-Hispanic Whites (β = 1.03; 95% CI: 0.99, 1.07) controlling for age, gender, and parental education. INTERPRETATION: Our results suggest a durable association between experiencing early life trauma and immune health in late-life, and that structural forces may shape the ways in which these relationships unfold over the life course.

Original publication




Journal article


PLoS One

Publication Date





Humans, United States, Aged, Adolescent, Interleukin-6, Immunoglobulin G, Cytomegalovirus Infections, Immune System, White