Extreme stress may affect the way the body's cells function
WEDNESDAY, Aug. 17, 2016 (HealthDay News) -- Women who suffered physical or emotional abuse as children often die at a younger age than other women, a new study suggests.
Researchers found that among nearly 6,300 middle-aged U.S. adults, female survivors of child abuse were more likely to die over the next 20 years, versus other women.
And the worse the abuse was, the greater the impact appeared to be on a woman's life span. Those who said they'd suffered severe physical abuse were 58 percent more likely to die during the study period, compared with women with no history of child abuse.
Experts said the findings, published online Aug. 17 in JAMA Psychiatry, highlight the lasting and extensive effects of child abuse.
Previous research had already shown that survivors of abuse are at risk of poorer physical and mental health as adults.
"Now we know that child abuse is also associated with later-life mortality. It's sad," said Idan Shalev. He's an assistant professor at Penn State University, in University Park, Pa. And, he co-wrote an editorial published with the study.
Although the study found a link between abuse in childhood and a shorter female life span, it's important to note that the study wasn't designed to definitively prove a cause-and-effect relationship.
Still, Shalev, who does research on the biological effects of stress during early life, had at least one theory as to how abuse may lay the groundwork for an earlier death.
Adversity in early childhood may leave a biological "fingerprint" that affects how body cells function over a lifetime, he suggested.
Edith Chen, the lead researcher on the study, also pointed to that possibility.
"The idea is that stress that occurs during sensitive periods -- such as early in childhood -- may program biological systems in a way that puts [people] at risk for health problems later in life," said Chen. She's a professor at Northwestern University, in Evanston, Ill.
This study cannot answer the "why" questions, according to Chen. But it does show that child abuse is linked to mortality decades later, she said.
The findings are based on nearly 6,300 U.S. adults. The study volunteers were 47 years old, on average, when the study began in the 1990s. Over the next 20 years, just under 1,100 study participants died.
Among women, those who said they were "sometimes" or "often" emotionally abused as children were 22 percent more likely to die during the study period, versus women with no history of child abuse.
Similarly, women who'd been physically abused as children were 30 percent to 58 percent more likely to die, depending on the severity of the abuse, the study showed.
Chen's team looked at several potential explanations -- including study participants' education levels and race, and whether they smoked, drank heavily or had heart disease, cancer or major depression.
None of those factors completely explained the link between child abuse and women's shorter life span.
"So then what's going on?" Shalev said. There are no definitive answers, he said, but other research has suggested that severe childhood stress can become "embedded" in the body, at the molecular level.
It's possible, according to Shalev, that childhood abuse causes lasting changes in how genes are expressed -- which can have long-term health consequences.
But one finding from the study was puzzling: Men who'd been abused as children did not have a higher mortality rate than other men.
"We can't tell why from the data," Chen said. "But we speculate that it could be related to differences in how men and women cope with stress, or differences in [their] biological responses to stress."
The findings do not mean that only women suffer lasting consequences, though. Other studies have found that male survivors have heightened risks of health problems as adults, according to Shalev.
"We know that both men and women suffer long-term effects," he said.
That's not true of all child abuse survivors, of course, Shalev pointed out. And the point is not to "alarm" people with a history of abuse, he added.
Instead, Shalev said, they should be aware of the possible long-term risks, because they can do something about it -- by eating well, exercising, and seeing their doctor for routine health screenings.
"A healthy lifestyle can help mitigate the effects," Shalev said.
An estimated 702,000 U.S. children suffered some form of abuse or neglect in 2014, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"Child maltreatment is a common problem," Shalev said. "And its effects don't just 'go away' after childhood."
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has more on child abuse and neglect.