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Reports of Childhood Abuse and Risk of Adult Death

IPR psychologists find link exists for women, not men

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IPR psychologists find a link between self-reports of childhood abuse and higher risk of death in women.

Childhood abuse has been linked to a variety of adult psychiatric problems, but its association with risk of death as an adult is not well understood. Research led by IPR psychologist Edith Chen—and co-authored with IPR psychologists Greg Miller and Dan Mroczek—uncovers a link between self-reported childhood abuse and an increased risk of premature death in women.

The researchers linked reports of physical and emotional abuse in childhood to mortality rates in adulthood for a national sample of more than 6,000 adults. The participants first completed questionnaires in 1995–96, and the researchers then tracked mortality data over the next 20 years using the Death Rate Index.

Edith Chen

Women who self-reported experiencing physical abuse, either severe or moderate, or emotional abuse by one of their parents had an increased risk of death over the 20-year follow-up. For men in the sample, however, the researchers did not find the same association between self-reports of childhood abuse and risk of death. 

“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,” Chen said.

Addressing the findings, the researchers suggest that abuse can heighten vulnerability to psychiatric conditions. Additionally, children who experience abuse might 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 might affect how biological systems operate throughout life.

Still, it is unclear why women appear to be more vulnerable to the effects of abuse than men.  The study also acknowledges that relying on self-reports of abuse might not fully reveal participants’ actual childhood experiences, meaning other explanations are possible.

Even so, the findings fit into an existing body of research showing that physical and emotional harm “from abuse that is psychological in nature can have implications for health outcomes,” the researchers concluded.

Edith Chen, Greg Miller, and Dan Mroczek are professors of psychology. Chen and Miller are IPR fellows; Mroczek is an IPR associate. The article, "Association of Reports of Childhood Abuse and All-Cause Mortality Rates in Women," can be found here.

Read the original Northwestern NewsCenter article here.

Published: September 28, 2016.