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Study links self-reported childhood abuse to death in women

Unclear why women appear to be more vulnerable to the effects of abuse than men

  • Study shows women were at increased risk of death during 20-year follow-up
  • No association for men between self-reported childhood abuse, long-term risk of death
  • Childhood abuse has been linked to a variety of adult psychiatric problems

EVANSTON - A study of a large number of middle-aged adults suggests childhood abuse self-reported by women was associated with an increased long-term risk of death, according to a Northwestern University researcher. 

Childhood abuse has been linked to a variety of adult psychiatric problems but its association with later-life risk of death as an adult has been less understood. 

Edith Chen, professor of psychology at Northwestern’s Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, and coauthors examined reports of physical and emotional abuse in childhood with all-cause mortality rates in adulthood in a national sample of more than 6,000 adults.

The study found no association for men between self-reported childhood abuse and long-term risk of death. 

The results were different for women. Women who self-reported experiencing severe physical abuse, moderate physical abuse or emotional abuse from a parent were at increased risk of death during the 20-year follow-up.

Furthermore, mitigating factors such as childhood socioeconomic status, adult depression or personality traits did not explain the association between childhood abuse and greater risk of death in women, according to the study. 

The researchers attempted to explain the association, suggesting abuse can heighten vulnerability to psychiatric conditions. In addition, children who experience abuse may develop negative health behaviors, such as drug use, to cope with stress. Chen said obesity and its consequences could be one pathway between childhood abuse and death, and childhood adversities may affect how biological systems operate throughout life.

The study acknowledges it is unclear why women appear to be more vulnerable to the effects of abuse than men. 

Study limitations include self-reported childhood abuse, which means other explanations may be possible and that the reports may not accurately represent what happened in participants’ childhoods. 

The participants, an average age of 47, had completed questionnaires in 1995 and 1996 and follow-up mortality data was tracked over 20 years. There were 1,091 confirmed deaths -- 17.4 percent -- in the study group through October 2015.  

“These findings suggest that women who report child abuse continue to be vulnerable to premature mortality and perhaps should receive greater attention in interventions aimed at promoting health,” said Chen, a faculty fellow with Northwestern’s Institute for Policy Research.

The article, “Association of Reports of Childhood Abuse and All-Cause Mortality Rates in Women,” was published online today in JAMA Psychiatry. Additional co-authors include Daniel K. Mroczek and Gregory E. Miller of Northwestern and Nicholas A. Turiano of Western Virginia University. 

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