Researchers Surprised to Find Seven Adult Health Problems Linked to Child Abuse


If you were abused as a child — by your parents, another trusted adult, your classmates, or anyone else — chances are you don’t need a bunch of scientists to tell you that the ripple effects of pain can still be felt when you’re a adult.

For many victims of child abuse, regardless of age, the fact that you can never fully escape the pain is connected to your being.

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Even so, there’s still great benefit to psychologists being able to unravel the exact nature of how child abuse affects adult victims — and that’s where a new study published in the journal Aging and Health Research comes into play. The study — which was conducted by a team of scientists led by research assistant Anna Buhrmann of the Institute of Life Course & Aging at the University of Toronto — examined health data from a group of more than 5,000 British Columbians who were at least 60 years old. From there, the health information of individuals who had been physically abused as children was compared with that of individuals who had not.

Their conclusions were astonishing – and tragic.


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Specifically, researchers found a “significant” link between childhood physical abuse and seven health problems. Two of those health problems were related to mental health and five were related to physical health. The five physical health problems are diabetes, heart disease, arthritis, migraines and cancer. The two mental illnesses are depression and anxiety. Both were found to occur later in life, and with disproportionate frequency, in adults who had been physically abused as children.

Researchers found a “significant” link between childhood physical abuse and seven health problems – diabetes, heart disease, arthritis, migraines, cancers, depression and anxiety.

“The association between CPA [childhood physical abuse] and 2 mental health problems and 5 physical health problems remained significant even after adjusting for sociodemographic characteristics, health behaviors and other ACEs,” the authors explain.

One of the study’s co-authors expressed hope that therapy could be a good way to alleviate some of the negative effects of childhood abuse.

“Health professionals serving older adults should be aware that it is never too late to refer people for counseling,” said Professor Esme Fuller-Thomson, who supervised the thesis. “A promising intervention, cognitive behavioral therapy [CBT]has been tested and found to be effective in reducing post-traumatic stress disorder and depressive and anxiety symptoms in child abuse survivors.”

It is unclear how physical abuse in childhood corresponds so closely to health problems in adults. The study authors acknowledge that more research is needed on this topic, as possible explanations range from the psychological changes caused in children after being abused to the possibility that victims of abuse develop physical changes, such as abnormal levels of cortisol, the body’s primary stress hormone.

“A growing body of literature supports the biological embedding hypothesis, which describes how physical abuse in childhood ‘gets under the skin’ to cause physiological changes that lead to poor health outcomes later in life,” the study authors write at one point. . They noted that one promising explanation is that cortisol levels are distorted by changes in the body’s hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. They also speculated that the health problems in adults may be caused by “disorders in the autonomic nervous system (ANS), which shapes the stress response through the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems.” They also speculated that physical abuse in childhood could alter gut bacteria, lead to chronic inflammation, decrease brain volume, decrease cellular immunity and cause epigenetic changes.

“Consequently, our findings support the need for further research into the biological pathways that interact with each other.” [childhood physical abuse] to poor health in older adults,” the authors conclude. “High rates of concurrent occurrence of CPA and conditions such as anxiety, depression, and COPD [chronic obstructive pulmonary disease] also reinforce previous recommendations that screening for CPA could help identify those at higher risk of developing these health problems in older adults.”

Victims of childhood physical abuse are not only associated with adverse health effects in adults, but also often deal with a range of psychological trauma symptoms for the rest of their lives. Speaking to Salon in February, author Stephanie Foo described how the so-called “complex PTSD” affects his patients.

“People with complex PTSD often develop it as a result of child abuse, domestic violence, living in a war zone, captivity,” Foo told Salon. “It’s more of a relational thing than traditional PTSD. Because the number of triggers we have is so large, it becomes less tied to a very specific trigger than, say, if you’re a soldier in the desert, in a desert environment. It’s more like you often have a general feeling of discomfort.”

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