The tragedy of child abuse may go beyond mental health issues in youth and adulthood, extending to potential cardiovascular risks in later life.
In a new study, researchers from Canada’s Concordia University discovered the harm of childhood abuse can have long-term negative physical effects, as well as emotional ones.
Although scientists have hypothesized that stress in early childhood could cause physiological changes that affect a victim’s response to stress — which puts the individual at an increased risk of disease later in life — evidence has been lacking.
Psychologist Dr. Jean-Philippe Gouin tested the assumption and found that early-life abuse results in physiological changes that may increase the risk of cardiovascular disease later on.
Along with colleagues from Ohio State University and the University of Missouri, Gouin looked at the body’s biological response to naturally occurring stress.
“We wanted to investigate whether abuse during childhood could have a lasting impact on the physiological response to stress in daily life,” Gouin said. “Past research has evaluated the impact of early abuse on stress-response among young adults. We wanted to extend these findings to older adults.”
Researchers interviewed 130 adults with a mean age of 65 about recent stressful events and their childhood abuse history. Participants completed an interview on stressors in the preceding 24 hours.
Some stressors included “having an argument with a partner” and “being stuck in traffic, resulting in being late for an important appointment.” Blood samples were then taken from the participants to measure their levels of three biological markers.
The results of this study, which were recently published in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine, found that there were marked differences between two groups in one of the three biological markers.
In abuse victims who reported multiple stressors in the preceding 24 hours, levels of interleukin-6 (IL-6), a protein that stimulates an immune response and is implicated in inflammation, were more than twice those of the participants who reported multiple daily stressors but no abuse history.
The findings from this study indicate that the impact of early-life abuse extend well into older age.
“While the production of inflammatory markers such as IL-6 is essential to fight acute infection, its overproduction has been associated with the development of age-related diseases, such as cardiovascular disease,” Gouin said.
“An exaggerated IL-6 response to daily stressors may create a physiological state that, over several years, increases the risk of developing cardiovascular disease.”
Source: Concordia University