The psychological effects of abuse as a child can last a lifetime, but researchers have discovered the abuse can affect more than just mental health. A new study has found that women who suffered childhood abuse also have shorter lifespans than those who experienced a happy childhood.
The study comes from Edith Chen, Ph.D., and other researchers at Northwestern University in Evanston Illinois. The researchers published their results August 17th in the journal JAMA Psychiatry. Although plenty of research has confirmed that physical and emotional abuse as a child can result in psychiatric problems as an adult, there is little research into whether abuse as a child affects an adult’s lifespan. The researchers set out to find out more about any potential link.
To do this, the researchers used data from the survey of Midlife Development, studying 6,285 adults between the ages of 25 and 74 who live in the United States. The data included psychological information from 1995 and 1996, with the patients completing questionnaires about any emotional abuse or moderate or severe physical abuse they suffered as a child. The National Death Index provided data about any of the study participants who died through October 2015. About half the study participants were men, and about half were women.
The researchers did not find a link between self-reported emotional or physical abuse for the men as children and an earlier death. However, they did find a link for women. The researchers discovered that women who reported emotional abuse, moderate physical abuse, or severe physical abuse as a child were at an increased risk of death from any cause within the next twenty years. The more types of childhood abuse they experienced, the greater their risk of early death. This seemed to hold true no matter the woman’s socioeconomic status as a child, her personality traits, or the presence of depression as an adult.
The results of the study are not entirely surprising. Past studies had found that when children suffer negative experiences as a child, including abuse but also including divorce or substance abuse by parents, they can have a greater risk of heart disease and cancer as an adult. Child abuse survivors also tend to have poorer health and more chronic disease, such as diabetes and respiratory conditions, and they tend to have higher cholesterol and blood pressure.
The researchers suggest that because the mortality is higher from any cause, not specifically suicide, the deaths were likely not higher because of suicides. Because the age of the participants was older, the deaths were also likely not directly caused by the abuse but instead from chronic disease that often worsens with age.
Although the researchers are not sure exactly why child abuse results in a higher mortality rate later in life, they have some ideas. One thought is that exposure to abuse can increase the risk of psychiatric conditions, such as depression, which increases their risk of health problems. Abused children may also use drugs, overeating, or other poor health habits to cope with their emotional trauma, with an increased risk of obesity and other health issues that can lead to an earlier death. The researchers also speculate that childhood abuse can cause an immune response that leads to chronic inflammation, increasing the risk of heart disease and other chronic disease associated with aging.
As for why women seem to be more affected than the men by their childhood abuse, the researchers speculate that they may have different coping strategies or there may be a different biological response to stress, such as the release of steroids. There may also be differences in self-reporting abuse between women and men or from person to person. More studies would need to find out exactly what is going on.
The study results are not good news for women who have suffered abuse as a child and are hoping to get on with their lives. However, the results are important for getting these women the help they need. By knowing women continue to suffer health effects for decades after their abuse ends, doctors and others can be aware of their health risks and get these patients the interventions they need to live a longer life.
Each year in the U.S., more than 6.6 million children are referred to a child protection agency, and much more abuse may be unreported. This abuse can be physical and sexual abuse, but it can also involve psychological abuse or neglect of a child. Child abuse survivors are at an increased risk of alcohol or drug abuse, smoking, depression, suicide, and abuse by a partner, and they are more likely to have sex earlier and with more partners, with a greater chance of unintended pregnancies and sexually-transmitted diseases. In 2008 alone, the financial cost of abuse was estimated at $124 billion in the U.S.