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Monday 17th June 2019

Childhood adversity linked to later ill-health

8th August 2011

People who had difficult childhoods are at greater risk of developing a whole range of chronic physical health problems in later life, including osteoarthritis, neck or back pain, headaches, asthma and heart disease.


Researchers at the University of Otago in New Zealand found a link between children who are abused or suffer other adversities and chronic ill-health in later life.

A similar link was found between later chronic disease and children who developed a mental disorder before the age of 21.

Study lead author Kate Scott said the results sent a general message about the importance of the psychological and social environment on health.

Scott, a clinical psychologist, said there was also a clear link drawn between psychological and physical health.

Writing in the Archives of General Psychiatry, the researchers said they had carried out studies of cross-sectional community surveys completed by 18,303 adults aged 18 years and older from 10 countries.

The data formed part of the World Health Organization World Mental Health Surveys initiative between 1 January 2001 and 31 December 2004.

Study participants hailed from Colombia, Mexico, the United States, Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, and Japan.

Scott and her team performed assessments of the risk for adult-onset  heart disease, asthma, diabetes, arthritis, chronic spinal pain, and chronic headache.

The outcomes were linked to two factors: specific childhood adversities and early-onset depressive and anxiety disorders.

Scott's study also controlled for mental disorder, which previous studies had not yet done.

They compiled a list of childhood adversities: physical or sexual abuse; neglect; parental death; parental divorce; other parental loss; parental mental disorder; parental substance use' parental criminal behaviour, family violence and economic adversity.

The study showed that people who experienced three or more of these adversities during childhood had a higher likelihood of developing the six physical conditions, particularly heart disease.

It concluded that early life adversity in terms of childhood neglect, abuse, and parental psychopathology had widespread, long-term associations with later poor physical health.

But researchers said further research was needed to discover exactly how childhood adversities and early-onset mental disorders might increase the risk for chronic physical ailments later on.

Assistant psychology professor Cinnamon Stetler of Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina, who peer-reviewed the study, said the research was solidly conducted and had the effect of confirming what was already known or strongly suspected.

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