Physical and Emotional Effects of Childhood Abuse Can Linger Through Late Life
Many studies have found that people who were physically or sexually abused during childhood are more likely to have physical and mental health problems, such as heart disease and depression, as adults.
Most of these studies have looked at the effects of childhood abuse in young or middle adulthood, not late adulthood. One exception, a study of more than 5,500 adults 65 and older, found that older people who had been abused as children had higher rates of depression and risks of suicide. This study also found that these adults had more physical health problems and unhealthy habits -- such as smoking and drinking heavily-- than those who hadn’t been abused in childhood.
Childhood abuse may boost risks of poorer health in various ways. The trauma of abuse may leave victims more likely to have mood problems. It may also leave them feeling as though they have less control over their lives. And it may leave them less able to manage stress or have close, supportive relationships with others.
New Research in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society
To find out more about the effects of childhood abuse in later life, researchers recently studied more than 21,000 adults, aged 60 or older.
The researchers asked the adults questions to find out whether they had been physically or sexually abused in childhood. Among other things, they also asked the adults if they had common medical conditions, such as high blood pressure; whether they had ever smoked; how much they drank; and whether they had ever tried to kill themselves. In addition, the researchers used standard tests to check whether the adults were depressed or had other mental health problems.
Older adults who said they’d been physically or sexually abused as children had worse mental and physical health than those who hadn’t been abused in childhood, the researchers found. And adults who said they’d been both physically and sexually abused had worse physical and mental health than those who reported just one type of abuse.
"The effects of childhood abuse appear to last a lifetime, although life experience may (offset) its effects in some individuals," the researchers conclude.
If healthcare providers asked older patients whether they suffered abuse in childhood, and helped them get therapy when needed, this could help improve their health and well-being, the researchers added. Research has found, for example, that a form of therapy called cognitive behavioral therapy can help adults who were abused as children manage stress better. Other therapies and programs have been shown to help older people feel more in control of their lives, and less stressed and lonely.
Additional research is needed to help understand the effects of child abuse (physical and emotional), and to better understand how childhood abuse affects health, the researchers argue. More research to identify therapies that will help older people who were abused as children are also needed.
What Should I Do?
If you feel depressed, anxious, or have trouble with relationships or managing stress, talk to your healthcare provider. He or she can help. If you were abused as a child, consider letting your healthcare provider know this, as well. This may help him or her help you further.
The summary above is from the full report titled, "Long-Term Effects of Childhood Abuse on the Quality of Life and Health of Older People: Results from the DEPS-GP Project." It is in the February 2008 issue of the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society (Volume 56, Issue 2). The report is authored by Brian Draper, MD, Jon J. Pfaff, PhD, Jane Pirkis, PhD, John Snowdon, MD, Nicola T. Lautenschlager, MD, Ian Wilson, PhD, Osvaldo P. Almeida, MD, PhD.