Adults who have survived childhood abuse are more likely to experience mental health problems than those who were not abused during their youth. Depression, anxiety, panic, posttraumatic stress, eating and food issues, and substance abuse are just some of the psychological conditions that these survivors face. Another consequence of childhood abuse is diminished physical health. Research has shown that negative psychological well-being decreases physical health and can lead to serious health problems, including hypertension and heart disease. But few studies have examined how specific types of childhood abuse affect physical health directly.
To address this gap in research, Cathy Spatz Widom, Ph.D., of the Psychology Department at John Jay College at the City University of New York recently conducted a study that sought to determine the link between three individual types of abuse and later physical health problems. Widom analyzed data from adults who had been abused prior to their 12th birthday. The average age of the participants was 41. Each participant underwent a complete physical examination and blood test in adulthood. Based on documented reports of the abuse, Widom compared how sexual abuse, neglect/maltreatment, and physical abuse in childhood affected the participants’ health in adulthood.
She found that the adults who had experienced neglect and maltreatment had poorer oral and visual health as well as impaired airflow and increased risk for diabetes. The adult survivors of sexual abuse were more likely than the other participants to develop oral health issues and hepatitis C. They also had higher rates of HIV and malnutrition. Those who had survived physical abuse were also at increased risk for malnutrition and diabetes. Although some of these conditions could be attributed to maladaptive coping techniques, such as smoking, drug or alcohol use, and poor nutrition, the findings clearly show that adults who have survived childhood abuse are still at increased risk for significant physical health problems. Widom believes that these findings have strong clinical implications. She said, “Understanding the mechanisms that place abused and neglected children at higher risk for these adult physical health outcomes will help focus these efforts.”
Widom, C. S., Czaja, S. J., Bentley, T., Johnson, M. S. (2012). A prospective investigation of physical health outcomes in abused and neglected children: New findings from a 30-year follow-up. American Journal of Public Health, 102.6, 1135-1144.
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