When you look back at your childhood, do you remember a warm and happy household…or something chillier—even toxic? Our relationships with our parents build a foundation for our lives, and the way we remember this key bond can influence emotional well-being and physical health well past childhood.

Problems go beyond the lifelong contentious relationship you might have with a neglectful or unloving parent, for instance. These memories can influence the decisions that you make for yourself, especially your health. And these effects aren’t limited to people who grew up in extreme situations.

TIME DOESN’T HEAL ALL WOUNDS

It’s known that young adults with memories of supportive and loving parents have less depression and substance abuse and generally are healthier than those with negative memories. But researchers from Michigan State University and University of Michigan wanted to find out if good or bad memories affect older adults in the same way or if you eventually “grow out of” any lasting effects.

They analyzed data from two large surveys, one of about 7,100 people in their mid-40s followed for 18 years and the other of 15,234 people age 50 and over followed for six years. Both groups answered questions about their memories of their relationships with their parents and how much emotional support and affection they remember receiving as children. General health, chronic illnesses and depression were measured many times over the course of both surveys.

The results: The researchers found that childhood recollections could still have a powerful influence decades later, when people were in middle age and older—the memories did not fade over time or matter less and less as the years rolled by. Just as studies involving younger participants had found, more positive memories of both mothers and fathers were linked to better health and less depression later in life, while people who remembered colder, more distant relationships with parents generally fared poorer—the memories don’t fade over time and their consequences don’t diminish.

Complicating the picture, other research has shown that our memories aren’t always accurate. Some people may remember childhood events as being better than they actually were and others remember them as being worse.  Such “memories” play a strong role in our lives even if they’re not accurate, guiding everyday behaviors and impacting health. Happy memories create positive emotions, which research shows are associated with better health habits such as regular exercise, good sleep and better stress management. Unhappy memories can do the opposite and lead to bad choices that take a toll on health.

REFOCUSING PRIORITIES

You can’t change your memories or relive your childhood, but you can take conscious steps to improve your health now. Chances are, you already know what to do for physical health—eat a healthy diet, exercise and get adequate sleep…don’t smoke…drink in moderation (if at all)…and see your doctor for preventive care.

For your emotional health, you can free yourself of the hold of old negative memories by devoting energy to cultivating present-day relationships. Strong bonds with a spouse, your own children and friends might compensate for less-than-ideal memories of your parents. Building these new positive memories can make you happier and healthier.

You’ll find more ideas in “Let Go of Toxic Memories.” If you continue to feel trapped in memories of your youth, it might be time to consider psychological counseling, such as talk therapy.