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Child abuse and neglect may increase risk of premature death in adulthood

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The findings, published in BMJ Open, discovered that adults who reported sexual abuse by the age of 16 had a 2.6 times higher risk of dying in middle age – between the ages of 45 and 58 – than those who did not report sexual abuse.

Adults who reported physical abuse by the age of 16 had a 1.7 times higher risk of dying early, while those who experienced neglect – assessed using questionnaire responses from respondents’ parents and teachers during childhood – had 1.4 times higher risk.

The researchers also investigated the relationship between early-life socioeconomic disadvantage and premature death. They discovered that those who were disadvantaged at birth (those whose father’s job was classified as unskilled manual work) had a 1.9-fold higher risk of premature death than other socioeconomic groups.

The study used data from the 1958 National Child Development Study, a nationally representative birth cohort study, which included 9,310 people born in 1958.

Dr Nina Rogers, who led the research while at UCL and is now at the University of Cambridge, stated: “Our work shows the long-lasting consequences that specific types of child abuse and neglect can have. The findings are especially important because these early-life adversities are not uncommon, affecting millions of people in the UK.”

The researchers looked at socioeconomic and health-related factors to see if they could explain why people who were abused or neglected as children, or who were born into poverty, were more likely to die in middle age. They discovered that smoking appeared to be particularly important in explaining mortality among those who had been physically abused or neglected, as well as among those who were economically disadvantaged.

However, none of the studied factors, which ranged from mental health to obesity to risky behavior such as illegal drug use and problem drinking, appeared to account for the increased risk of death in people who were sexually abused as children.

According to senior author Dr. Snehal Pinto Pereira (UCL Surgery & Interventional Science), “This study is the first to disentangle the independent associations between different kinds of child maltreatment and mortality in adulthood. Importantly, very few studies have considered the long-term implications of experiencing neglect in childhood. I therefore think our finding that children who are neglected have a 43% higher risk of dying early in adulthood, highlights a critical component of child maltreatment where knowledge of long-term outcomes is particularly sparse.”

The prevalence of various early-life adversities ranged from 1.6 percent (sexual abuse) to 11 percent (psychological abuse) among the cohort members included in the study, with 10percent classified as socioeconomically disadvantaged in early life.

At the age of seven and eleven, each cohort member’s mother and teacher answered questions that allowed the researchers to determine if they showed signs of neglect. Cohort members were 45 years old when they were asked if they had ever experienced sexual, physical, or psychological abuse or witnessed abuse of others in their family before the age of 16. The researchers then followed the cohort members for 13 years, recording deaths along the way. Psychological abuse and witnessing other people’s abuse were not independently linked to an increased risk of dying young.

The research was funded by the US National Institutes of Health’s National Institute on Aging (NIA), the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), and the Medical Research Council (MRC) in the United Kingdom.

Image Credit: Getty

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