Childhood hardship tied to adulthood disease risks

Risks include heart disease, arthritis, asthma, diabetes and chronic back pain or headaches.

Reuters August 04, 2011

Children who are abused, lose a parent, or suffer other hardships may have increased risks of chronic health conditions later in life, a new study suggests.

The study, of more than 18,000 adults from 10 countries, found that those who said they'd faced childhood "adversities" -- like abuse, the death of a parent or a parent's alcohol or drug abuse -- had higher risks of a number of medical conditions.

Those included heart disease, arthritis, asthma, diabetes and chronic back pain or headaches.

The same pattern was seen among people who said they'd suffered from depression, anxiety or other mental health conditions before the age of 21.

The findings, reported in the Archives of General Psychiatry, do not prove that serious stresses in childhood directly cause poor physical health later on.

But there are a number of reasons the two could be connected, said lead researcher Kate M. Scott, a psychologist and associate professor at the University of Otago in New Zealand.

"Early adverse experiences can shape people's behavior and lifestyle," Scott told Reuters Health by email. For example, she said, some people may end up smoking, drinking or over-eating as a way to deal with the stress of those childhood experiences, and the memories of them.

Similarly, Scott explained, young people with depression or other mental health disorders may learn to use smoking or drinking as a way to "self-medicate."

She said people should recognize that mental well-being is an important factor in physical health as well. "So this is another important reason for individuals to seek mental health treatment if they are having ongoing problems."

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