Having a traumatic childhood appears to make people more vulnerable to stressful events even much later in life, Ohio researchers have found.
”Adults who were maltreated as children have higher rates of a variety of psychiatric disorders, particularly depression, and they are more sensitive and responsive to stress as adults,” says Janice Kiecolt-Glaser, PhD, distinguished university professor of psychiatry and psychology at the Ohio State University College of Medicine, Columbus.
Studies have shown that in young adults and middle-aged adults, she says.
Now, her new research extends the investigation out further, to older adults in their 60s and beyond.
The bottom line? “Childhood adversities cast a very long shadow,” she writes in a paper reporting the study.
She presented the findings Saturday, August 14 at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association in San Diego.
Her team looked at 132 healthy older adults, average age 69. Included were 58 caregivers of a family member with dementia and 74 noncaregivers.
Why did she compare those who cared for a family member and those who did not? Her previous research has shown the stressful effects of family caregiving, so Kiecolt-Glaser wanted to see if the effects of early adversity were so large they could be pereceptible over and above the differences she sees between caregivers and noncaregivers.
She collected blood samples to look for inflammatory markers, including interleukin (IL-6) and tumor necrosis factor-alpha (TNF-a), and evaluated the length of telomeres, the ends of DNA strands. Shorter telomeres have been associated with aging, disease and death. The inflammatory markers she evaluated have been associated with heart disease, autoimmune and infectious diseases.
All participants answered questions about depression and about their childhood.
She found that nearly a third of people had experienced some physical, emotional or sexual abuse as children, that 33 percent had one childhood adversity and 24 percent had multiple ones, such as the death of a parent or witnessing severe marital problems.
Even after she controlled for such factors as caregiving status and age, childhood adversity was linked with higher IL-6 levels and shorter telomeres.
When she compared those with no adversities and those with multiple ones, the telomere difference could translate into a seven to 15 year shortened lifespan for those with the tough childhood.
The stressful adverse childhood events were perceptible even on top of the differences between caregivers and noncaregivers that Kiecolt-Glaser already knows exist.
“‘Both childhood abuse and caring for an ill spouse or parents were linked with more depression,” she found.
Next, her team will look at how to reduce the stress responses in those with early adversity. Meanwhile, she says that when depression strikes in these people they tend to do better with therapy than with antidepressant medication treatment.
“Which makes sense,” she says, as ”it gives them new and better ways of coping.”
She also recommends yoga and meditation to help people with adverse childhoods cope with current stressors.