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Research Ties Adult Ailments to Childhood Mental Trauma

  • Rose Hoban

Psychologists have known for decades that unpleasant childhood experiences can affect a person's mental health for a lifetime. But new research suggests childhood traumas might also have long term effects on physical health.

Dunedin study began in the 1970s

Researchers have been following the physical development and health of about a thousand New Zealanders since they were born in the early 1970s. This ongoing research, called the Dunedin study, after the southern New Zealand town where many of the subjects were born, has provided clues to understanding how childhood health affects the physiological health of the subjects who are now in their early thirties.

Avshalom Caspi, a researcher at Duke University, recently examined data from these subjects looking at how childhood hardships, such as abuse, violence, poverty and isolation might have lasting health consequences for the subjects as young adults.

"What we are looking at here, in particular, is whether or not childhood stress is not only related to something like depression, but does it also affect various metabolic conditions. Is it registered in the neuro-endocrine system?"

New insight on the genesis of adult health risks

Caspi and his colleagues found that these people had more risk factors for chronic diseases such as diabetes and heart disease than their peers who did not experience psychological hardship as children. Caspi says the risk factors he found are the kinds of things typically found in older people. These include elevated blood pressure, high blood cholesterol and being overweight.

Caspi says this research begins to confirm the long-held suspicion that poor adult health actually may be created by the conditions experienced in childhood and not just the physical problems of childhood, but the psychological ones, too. And he says this knowledge may change the way doctors look at treating the diseases of adulthood.

"Intervention efforts to improve health often concentrate on lifestyles in adulthood; get people to stop smoking, get people to exercise more. But one of the things that we are also learning is that a lot of the risks for adult poor health may already be laid down early on in life," Caspi says.

He adds that if society wants to improve people's health in middle and old age, perhaps decision-makers need to concentrate more on ways to improve the health and well-being of children.

Caspi's research is published in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine.