A new study followed individuals who were abused or neglected during their childhood to see if they were at higher risk for major depression when young adults. Although child abuse has been linked to depression in clinical populations and community surveys, the new research, a prospective longitudinal study, followed individuals from childhood until young adulthood.

Researchers found people who were abused and neglected during childhood did have a higher risk of major depression when they become young adults. The study is published in the January issue of the Archives of General Psychiatry.

Cathy Spatz Widom, Ph.D., then of the New Jersey Medical School, University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, Newark, and now of John Jay College of Criminal Justice, New York, and colleagues conducted a prospective study to determine whether abused and neglected children were at elevated risk of major depressive disorder (MDD) and psychiatric illness, compared with matched control subjects, when followed up into young adulthood.

The study included 676 children with substantiated cases of physical and sexual abuse and neglect before the age of 11. They were matched based on age, race, sex, and approximate family social class with 520 non-abused and non-neglected children. All were followed up into young adulthood (average age: 28.7).

“The current results show that childhood physical abuse was associated with increased risk for lifetime MDD,” the authors write. “We also provide new evidence that neglected children are at increased risk for depression as well.”

Child abuse and neglect were associated with a 51 percent increased risk for current MDD in young adulthood. Children who were physically abused had a 59 percent increased risk of lifetime MDD. Those who experienced multiple types of abuse had a 75 percent increased risk of lifetime MDD. The risk of current MDD was 59 percent higher for those who were neglected.

Childhood sexual abuse was not associated with an elevated risk of MDD. “However, childhood victims of sexual abuse reported significantly more depression symptoms than controls,” the authors point out.

“In addition, these findings reveal that onset of depression began in childhood for many of the children,” they write. “Our age-at-onset findings reinforce the need to intervene early in the lives of these abused and neglected children, before depression symptoms cascade into other spheres of functioning.”

Source: Archives of General Psychiatry