A new UK study finds that children who have suffered maltreatment are 36 percent more likely to be obese in adulthood compared to non-maltreated children.
Researchers from King’s College London estimate that the prevention or effective treatment of seven cases of child maltreatment could prevent one case of adult obesity.
Experts analyzed data from 190,285 individuals across 41 studies worldwide, and have published their results in the journal Molecular Psychiatry.
Severe childhood maltreatment (physical, sexual or emotional abuse or neglect) affects approximately 1 in 5 children (under 18) in the UK and in the US.
Officials say that in addition to the long-term mental health consequences of maltreatment, there is increasing evidence that child maltreatment may affect physical health.
Dr. Andrea Danese, child and adolescent psychiatrist from King’s College London’s Institute of Psychiatry and lead author of the study says: “We found that being maltreated as a child significantly increased the risk of obesity in adult life.
“Prevention of child maltreatment remains paramount and our findings highlight the serious long-term health effects of these experiences.”
Although experimental studies in animal models have previously suggested that early life stress is associated with an increased risk of obesity, evidence from population studies has been inconsistent.
Researchers believe the new meta review provides a comprehensive assessment of the evidence from all existing population studies.
From the analysis, the authors found that childhood maltreatment was associated with adult obesity.
This association was independent of the measures or definitions used for maltreatment or obesity, childhood or adult socioeconomic status, current smoking, alcohol intake, or physical activity.
Additionally, childhood maltreatment was not linked to obesity in children and adolescents, making it unlikely that the link was explained by reverse causality (i.e. children are maltreated because they were obese).
However, the analysis showed that when current depression was taken into account, the link between childhood maltreatment and adult obesity was no longer significant, suggesting that depression might help explain why some maltreated individuals become obese.
Previous studies offer possible biological explanations for this link.
Maltreated individuals may eat more because of the effects of early life stress on areas of the developing brain linked to inhibition of feeding, or on hormones regulating appetite.
Alternatively, maltreated individuals may burn fewer calories because of the effects of early life stress on the immune system leading to fatigue and reduced activity.
According to the study authors, future research will directly assess the link between maltreatment and adult obesity.
Source: King’s College London