Childhood adversity affects physical health in later life, study finds

5 February 2015

 

Individuals who experience stressful events as children show more signs of physical ‘wear and tear’ by midlife, according to a new study of people born in 1958.

French researchers analysed information on more than 7,500 people born in England, Scotland and Wales, who are being followed by the 1958 National Child Development Study. They looked at whether individuals had experienced adverse circumstances at ages 7, 11 or 16, such as divorce, bereavement, neglect or being in care, and compared this to clinical assessments of their general health at age 44.

They found that men and women who had experienced one or more traumas in early life were in poorer physical condition as adults, compared to those who had not faced any childhood adversity.

Men who experienced two or more traumas during childhood were more likely to smoke, drink and be less educated at age 23, and were less well-off by age 33, than those who had not experienced trauma. However, less than two thirds of the effect of childhood adversity on men’s adult health was explained by unhealthy lifestyles, education level and socioeconomic circumstances.

For women, these factors, as well as body mass index (BMI), explained over three quarters of the effect.

The fact that some of the effect of childhood adversity remains unexplained suggests that early life hardship may somehow become embedded in our biology, the researchers say. “Exposure to chronic stress during sensitive periods of development may alter the balance and responsiveness of physiological systems and have long-term effects on health,” they explain. “During [childhood], an early form of the socioeconomic gradient in health is set in place.”

 

Read the full paper

Adverse childhood experiences and physiological wear-and-tear in midlife: Findings from the 1958 British birth cohort, by Cristina Barboza Solís et al,was published in PNAS Plus in February 2015.