Difficult Childhood May Increase Adult Disease Risk


Individuals who experience psychological or social adversity in childhood may have lasting physical and emotional abnormalities that may help explain why they develop more age-related diseases in adulthood, according to a report in the December issue of Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine.

Andrea Danese, MD, of King’s College in London, studied 1,037 members of the Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Study, a long-term investigation of New Zealand residents born between April 1972 and March 1973. During the first 10 years of life, participants were assessed for exposure to socioeconomic disadvantage, maltreatment, and social isolation.

Maltreatment includes physical, sexual, and psychological abuse, as well as neglect. This is associated with a number of negative outcomes for children, including poor performance in school, delayed cognition and emotional disorders, according to the Child Welfare Information Gateway.

The participants were followed up at age 32 and evaluated for the presence of risk factors for age-related diseases, such as depression, high inflammation levels as measured by C-reactive protein, and symptoms of the metabolic syndrome, which include high blood pressure, dyslipidemia, and obesity. Those who had experienced adverse events in childhood were at a higher risk of developing the disease states.


The researchers estimated that 31.6 percent of the cases of depression, 13 percent of the cases of elevated inflammation and 32.2 percent of cases with metabolic syndrome risk factors could be attributed to adverse childhood experiences.

According to the US Department of Health and Human Services, an estimated 900,000 children were victims of child abuse or neglect in 2006. Physical consequences, such as damage to the brain, can have implications such as cognitive delays or emotional difficulties which can lead to a decreased ability to provide self-care, including adherence to healthy diet. Psychological problems can lead to high-risk behaviors, such as smoking, alcohol or drug abuse, or overeating, which can in turn lead to disease states such as hypertension, elevated cholesterol, and obesity.

For those children at risk of adverse events due to a lower socioeconomic level, the same journal features a study on children enrolled in the government preschool program “Head Start.” Researchers from Temple University found that most of the 1583 Head Start programs across the country encourages healthy eating and exercise habits in addition to educational and social skill enhancement.

70% of the programs served only non-fat or 1% milk, 94% served at least one vegetable daily, and 97% provided a serving of fruit each day during the program. Three-fourths of the programs had children participating in at least 30 minutes of adult-led physical activity each day as well.

Dr. Danese concludes her report by stating, “In conclusion, it has long been known that pathophysiological processes leading to age-related diseases may already be under way in childhood,” they continue. “The promotion of healthy psychosocial experiences for children is a necessary and potentially cost-effective target for the prevention of age-related disease.”