Maltreated children five times more likely to develop multiple chronic illnesses in adulthood, says study
The study also found that adults who had experienced neglect or physical, sexual and emotional abuse as children were over three times more likely to report poor health, widespread pain, frailty and loneliness
The World Health Organization (WHO) defines child maltreatment as the abuse and neglect that occurs to children under 18 years of age and “includes all types of physical and/or emotional ill-treatment, sexual abuse, neglect, negligence and commercial or other exploitation, which results in actual or potential harm to the child’s health, survival, development or dignity in the context of a relationship of responsibility, trust or power".
The long stream of child maltreatment data provided by the WHO indicates that the impact of this type of abuse is immense and multi-generational. The data shows that someone who is abused during childhood is more likely to abuse as an adult. The violence gets passed down from one generation to the next as a vicious cycle of violence. Breaking this cycle is not just necessary to eliminate child maltreatment, but also the lifelong physical and mental health repercussions that a survivor goes on to endure.
A recent UK-based study published in the Journal of Comorbidity throws much-needed light on this lifelong impact of child maltreatment on the physical and mental health of the survivors.
Childhood maltreatment and risk of multimorbidity
Led by scientists at the University of Glasgow, the study aimed to examine the link between four types of child maltreatment and the presence of multimorbidities (or multiple health conditions) in adult life. It analysed data provided by 1,57,357 participants based in England, Scotland and Wales.
It found that those adults who had experienced all four types of child maltreatment - neglect, physical, sexual and emotional abuse - were five times more likely to suffer from four or more long-term or chronic health issues.
The participants also proved to feel more socially isolated, and were over three times more likely to report poor health, widespread pain, frailty and loneliness.
Experiencing more types of childhood maltreatment was also linked with increased prevalence of mental health disorders.
Multimorbidity is clearly a huge challenge, both for the patients as well as the global healthcare system. The greater the number and severity of chronic health conditions one suffers from, the lower is their quality of life. This research underlines that adverse childhood experiences (ACES) can result in an increased risk of chronic diseases in adulthood due to two mechanisms.
- ACES affect mental health, and may later lead to the adoption of unhealthy behaviours like smoking, alcohol abuse and eating or sleep disorders. These unhealthy behaviours are risk factors, if not direct causes, of many chronic diseases including heart disease, liver disease, depression, and dementia.
- ACES lead to toxic stress, which is the prolonged or excessive activation of stress response systems in the body and brain. Toxic stress can increase the rate of wear and tear of the body, and shorten the chromosome telomere length which can impair the development of neurological, endocrine and immune systems of the body. These impairments and increased rate of breakdown of the body can also lead to chronic diseases in adulthood.
The study stated, “While the detailed understanding of these biological pathways requires further clarification, there is enough evidence for the impact of childhood adversity on long-term health to justify intervening.”
Communities and public healthcare systems investing more in the prevention of child maltreatment and support for survivors of childhood abuse can go a long way in ensuring better health outcomes in the future.
For more information, read our article on Chronic illness and mental health.
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