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Childhood abuse, lack of parental affection increases risk of adult health problems

Teresa Tanoos's picture
Study finds abuse and lack of parental warmth leads to increased health risks

Childhood abuse and a lack of parental affection can leave scars that last a lifetime, taking a toll on the emotional and physical health of survivors.

Plenty of evidence exists to support the psychological and physical harm of childhood abuse. And, now, researchers from UCLA have conducted a first-of-its-kind study that reveals the extent to which the stress of abuse and lack of parental affection negatively impacts the physical health of its victims across multiple systems.

The study, published online by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found a strong biological basis for how negative experiences early in life affect physical health.

"Our findings suggest that there may be a way to reduce the impact abuse has, at least in terms of physical health," said lead study author, Judith E. Carroll, who is a research scientist at the Cousins Center for Psychoneuroimmunology at UCLA.

"If the child has love from parental figures they may be more protected from the impact of abuse on adult biological risk for health problems than those who don't have that loving adult in their life," Caroll explained.

For the study, UCLA researchers examined 756 adults, who had all participated in a study called, Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults (CARDIA).

The researchers measured the participants for 18 biological markers of health risk, which included taking measurements for blood pressure, heart rate, stress hormone, cholesterol, waist circumference, inflammation, and blood sugar regulation.

After the participants were measured, the researchers added all their health risks across these markers to create a summary index called "allostatic load”.

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Participants with values in the upper range across these markers were at higher biological risk for disease, consistent with prior studies demonstrating that higher levels of allostatic load are linked to an increased risk for having a heart attack, stroke, or other negative health event that diminishes physical or cognitive abilities.

The researchers used the Risky Families Questionnaire, a popular self-report scale, in order to assess the childhood stress levels of the adults participating in the study.

As a result, they discovered a substantial association between reports of childhood abuse and multisystem health risks. However, the adults who reported greater amounts of parental affection during childhood had less multisystem health risks.

According to the research team, toxic childhood stress alters the body’s response to stress, triggering a heightened emotional and physical state of arousal that perceives a threat; thus, resulting in a reaction that can be difficult to control and stop.

"Our findings highlight the extent to which these early childhood experiences are associated with evidence of increased biological risks across nearly all of the body's major regulatory systems" said senior author, Teresa Seeman, professor of medicine in the division of geriatrics at the David Geffen School of Medicine and of epidemiology at the Fielding School of Public Health at UCLA.

"If we only look at individual biological parameters such as blood pressure or cholesterol, we would miss the fact that the early childhood experiences are related to a much broader set of biological risk indicators, suggesting the range of health risks that may result from such adverse childhood exposures," she added.

The findings of the study indicate that parental affection can help protect against the damaging effects of toxic childhood stress – and that the long-term consequences of childhood abuse can be tied to age-related diseases like cardiovascular disease, not to mention how this could impact long-term health care costs.

"It is our hope that this will encourage public policy support for early interventions," Carroll said.

"If we intervene early in risky families and at places that provide care for children by educating and training parents, teachers, and other caregivers in how to provide a loving and nurturing environment, we may also improve the long term health trajectories of those kids."

SOURCE: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Childhood abuse, parental warmth, and adult multisystem biological risk in the Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults study, published ahead of print on September 23, 2013.