Childhood Adversity Can Lead to Serious Health Problems in Adulthood

August 16, 2010

Children who experience trauma may enter a cycle of negative emotions that can contribute to health problems later and precipitate an early death, according to findings from a recent study.

Children who experience trauma may enter a cycle of negative emotions that can contribute to health problems later and precipitate an early death, according to findings presented this past weekend at the American Psychological Association’s 118th Annual Convention.

“A child who experienced a death of a parent, witnessed severe marital problems between parents, or was abused may be more vulnerable to stressful events later in life,” said Janice Kiecolt-Glaser, PhD, of Ohio State University College of Medicine. “Our latest research shows that childhood adversity casts a long shadow on one’s health and can lead to inflammation and cell aging much earlier than for those who haven't experienced these events. Those reporting multiple adversities could shorten their lifespan by seven to15 years.”

Further, adults who experienced some adversity in childhood appeared to continue to be at greater risk for health consequences even in later life, said Kiecolt-Glaser, who studied men and women whose average age was 70.

Using a community sample of 58 caregivers for a spouse or parent with Alzheimer’s disease or another progressive dementia and 74 demographically similar controls who had no caregiving responsibilities, Kiecolt-Glaser, research partner Ronald Glaser, and co-authors analyzed participants’ depression levels and occurrence of childhood trauma to determine how negative emotions and stressful experiences affect known biochemical markers of stress. The authors also wanted to know if childhood maltreatment could even enhance the adverse effects of caregiving, a chronic stressor that can affect mental and physical health.

The researchers measured three blood inflammatory markers: cytokines interleukin (IL-6), tumor necrosis factor-alpha (TNF-a) and telomere length. Shorter telomeres have been linked with aging, age-related diseases and death. IL-6 and TNF-a have also been linked to a number of cardiovascular, autoimmune and infectious diseases. Additionally, participants completed a questionnaire on depression and answered questions about past child abuse or neglect; losing a mother or father during childhood; witnessing severe marital problems; growing up with a family member who suffered from mental illness or alcohol abuse; or lacking a close relationship with at least one adult in childhood.

In the sample, 32% of participants reported some form of physical, emotional or sexual abuse during childhood while 68% of the participants reported no child abuse. Forty-four percent of participants reported no childhood adversities, 33% reported one childhood adversity, and 24% reported experiencing multiple adversities.

"We found that childhood adversity was associated with shorter telomeres and increased levels of inflammation even after controlling for age, caregiving status, gender, body mass index, exercise and sleep," said Kiecolt-Glaser. "Inflammation over time can lead to cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis, arthritis, Type 2 diabetes and certain cancers."