Mistreatment and other adversity experienced by children are associated with poorer health by early adolescence. The findings appear in JAMA Pediatrics and were published online today to coincide with the opening of the Pediatric Academic Societies’ annual meeting.
Although previous studies have shown a link between adverse childhood experiences and onset of such conditions as increased anxiety or substance use or becoming pregnant during adolescence, the JAMA Pediatrics research appears to be the first finding a similar relationship with illnesses requiring medical attention and somatic health issues such as headaches, dizziness, and stomach problems.
The findings are based on prospective analysis of Longitudinal Studies of Child Abuse and Neglect interview and questionnaire data for 933 children who participated at 4, 6, 8, 12, and 14 years old. The researchers looked at 8 categories of adversity: psychological maltreatment; physical abuse; sexual abuse; neglect; caregiver’s substance use/alcohol abuse; caregiver’s depressive symptoms; caregiver treated violently; and criminal behavior in the household experienced during the first 6 years of life, the second 6 years of life, the most recent 2 years, and overall.
More than 90% of the youths in the study had experienced an adverse childhood event by age 14 years. The researchers found that as the number of adverse childhood exposures increased, so did the likelihood of having a health problem; 2 or more adverse exposures were associated with somatic issues. They also found adversity in the most recent 2 years had the strongest association with poor health, somatic issues, and any health problem.
The researchers noted that recent advances in neuroscience have allowed investigators to begin to explain how childhood adversity may cause negative health outcomes. Other research has found that exposure to violence and other childhood stress is associated with a number of neurobiological and behavioral findings, such as chronic activation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, impaired responses to psychosocial stressors, and elevated inflammation levels.