Child Abuse Tied to Persistent Inflammation in Later Life

Fran Lowry

March 25, 2021

People who suffer abuse as children continue to have higher levels of inflammatory biomarkers as adults, likely placing them at increased risk for chronic health problems, new research shows.

In a study assessing trajectories of inflammation over a 3-year period in healthy adults, those who reported higher rates of physical, sexual, or emotional abuse had higher levels of bio-inflammatory blood markers vs those who reported lower rates of abuse. These individuals also had significantly higher rates of loneliness and depression.

Dr Megan Renna

"These adverse experiences that people can have in childhood and adolescence really can continue to influence our health at a biological level well into adulthood," investigator Megan E. Renna, PhD, postdoctoral fellow at Ohio State University College of Medicine, Columbus, told Medscape Medical News.

"There may be a somewhat invisible biological effect of that abuse later on in life, in addition to all of the psychological distress that could go along with those experiences," she added.

The findings were presented at the virtual Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) Conference 2021.

Need for Intervention

The investigators assessed the trajectory of inflammatory markers in 85 adults over a period of 3 years. Ages ranged from 47 to 67 years (mean age, 57 years), 81% were women, all were relatively healthy, and there were low rates of medical comorbidities.

Participant data on physical, emotional, and sexual abuse prior to age 18 were ascertained using the Childhood Experiences Questionnaire. Blood samples were assayed for cytokines IL-6, IL-8, IL-1β and TNF-α  at each visit.

After controlling for age, sex, body mass index, and medical comorbidities, results showed markers of inflammation increased at a greater rate over time in participants with higher rates of physical (P = .05) and sexual abuse (P = .02) compared to those with no history of childhood abuse.

"So, inflammation was increasing at a faster rate across those three visits for people with vs without an abuse history. And this was abuse experienced before age 18, but the mean age of our participants was about 57," said Renna.

"It is likely that emotional abuse plays a role in inflammation but we did not have a big enough sample to show significance," she added.

Participants who had reported childhood abuse also demonstrated significantly higher rates of loneliness and depression across all visits than those without a history of abuse.

"One of the things this work really highlights is the need for intervention for these children and adolescents who are experiencing abuse. This may have a helpful impact on their psychological health as they age, as well as their physical health," Renna said.

"Considerable Interest"

Commenting on the findings for Medscape Medical News, ADAA President Luana Marques, PhD, Harvard Medical School, Boston, Massachusetts, said research is "consistently indicating that childhood adversity puts individuals at risk for a host of problems, including inflammatory concerns, which are precursors for other physical illnesses."

Such results "demonstrate the importance of early identification and intervention of possible traumatic experiences for youth, and how early intervention at the parent level might also be helpful," said Marques, who was not involved with the research.

Also commenting on the study, Charles B. Nemeroff, MD, PhD, professor and chair, Dell Medical School, The University of Texas at Austin, and president-elect of the ADAA, told Medscape Medical News that the findings are pertinent for the field.

"The investigators demonstrated that a history of childhood physical or sexual abuse was associated with a greater inflammatory response, and this is of considerable interest because this increased inflammatory response very likely contributes to the well-documented increased prevalence of serious medical disorders such as heart disease, diabetes, and cancer in victims of child abuse and neglect," said Nemeroff, who was not associated with the research.  

Renna, Marques, and Nemeroff have disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) Conference 2021: Abstract S1-005. Presented March 18, 2021.

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