A new study of more than 3,000 women helps explain, at least in part, why women with a history of childhood trauma are at greater risk of poor health in midlife.
The research is the first to show that women who experienced childhood trauma were more likely than others to have their first child both earlier in life and outside of marriage, and that those factors were linked to poorer health later in life.
“It is the idea of ‘chains of risk’ — one thing leads to another,” said Dr. Kristi Williams, lead author of the study and professor of sociology at Ohio State University. “Childhood trauma leads to social and biological risks that lead to early and nonmarital birth which can lead to health problems later in life.”
These results suggest that early trauma — such as the death of a parent, physical abuse or emotional neglect — may affect young people’s decision-making in ways that they can’t entirely control. The findings, published in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior, have implications for public programs to prevent teen pregnancy, said Williams.
“It’s easy to tell teens that they shouldn’t have kids before marriage, but the message won’t be effective if they haven’t developed the capacity to do that because of trauma they experienced in childhood,” Williams said. “It may be necessary to do different kinds of interventions and do them when children are younger.”
Early childhood trauma is “shockingly” common in the United States, say the researchers. One national study conducted between 1995 and 1997 found that only 36 percent of respondents reported having no such adverse childhood experiences.
Other research has shown that childhood trauma is strongly associated with multiple health risks, including cancer, diabetes, stroke and early death, Williams said. Much of this work has focused on how early adversity may have biological and neurological effects that would lead to worse health throughout life.
“But there hasn’t been any attention given to how childhood adversity may affect social and developmental processes in adolescence and young adulthood – factors that we know are also strong predictors of later health,” she said.
One of those factors in women is the timing and context of first birth.
Data for this new study came from the 1979 National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (NLSY), which includes a representative sample of people who were 14 to 22 years old in 1979. The NLSY is run by Ohio State’s Center for Human Resource Research.
Participants were interviewed every year through 1994 and then after that, once every two years. The final sample for this study included 3,278 women.
Each participant reported whether she experienced one or more of six adverse childhood experiences before age 18: emotional neglect, physical abuse, alcoholism in the home, mental illness in the home, death of a biological parent and parental absence.
The researchers examined data on how old each participant was when she first gave birth and whether she was married, cohabiting or neither at the time. Finally, participants rated their health at or near age 40.
The findings showed that each additional childhood trauma experienced by the participants was associated with earlier age at first birth and a greater probability for a first birth during adolescence or young adulthood compared to later (age 25 to 39).
Furthermore, each additional trauma was associated with a 24 percent increase in the probability of being unmarried and not cohabiting at first birth compared to the likelihood that they were married when their first child was born.
The researchers then conducted statistical tests that showed early and non-marital births were a key reason why children who experienced trauma were more likely to report poorer health at midlife.
The findings also cast doubt on the notion that childbearing decisions are the result only of the culture in which children grow up, she said.
Some policymakers have claimed that some people don’t value marriage enough, and if they were just encouraged not to have kids until after they’re married, they would be better off, Williams said.
“You can promote this ‘success sequence’ — go to college, get a job, get married and have a child — exactly in that order. But the reason some people don’t do that isn’t just cultural, it is structural,” Williams said.
“When people experience traumas early in life, it makes it less likely that they will be able to make those positive choices.”
Williams conducted the study with Brian Karl Finch of the University of Southern California.
Source: Ohio State University