While experts have long known that traumatic experiences like childhood abuse can have a lasting detrimental impact on mental health, the potential physical consequences of psychological trauma aren’t well understood. When designing studies that look at the consequences of traumatic experiences, it can be difficult to define or measure those experiences — especially when they may have happened a long time ago, and may not have been documented in any way. But given what is already known about the role of stress in blood glucose control, it’s not unreasonable to suppose that lasting psychological trauma could increase the risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
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For the latest study, researchers followed participants in a study called CARDIA (Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults), which was designed to compare certain childhood experiences with a later risk of developing obesity, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and high blood lipids (cholesterol and triglycerides). These participants were initially examined in 1985 or 1986, when the average age of participants was 25. They then had relevant health outcomes tracked as part of the study for 30 years, with slightly different numbers of participants having data available for each health outcome (3,208 for obesity, 3,492 for type 2 diabetes, 3,458 for high blood pressure, and 2,973 for high blood lipids). Participants were recruited in four U.S. urban areas, as noted in a Healio article on the study — Chicago, Minneapolis, Birmingham (Alabama), and Oakland (California).
Childhood abuse linked to certain poor health outcomes
Exposure to childhood abuse was evaluated at the study’s 15-year follow-up exam using a survey called the Childhood Family Environments Questionnaire. Most participants (56%) reported no childhood abuse, and instead had largely nurturing and organized environments during childhood. The researchers found that over the course of the study period, participants who had experienced occasional or frequent abuse as children were more likely to develop type 2 diabetes, with race and sex linked to this outcome. Among those who experienced abuse, white men were 81% more likely to develop diabetes, while there was no significant relationship between abuse and diabetes for white women or Black adults. Abuse exposure was linked to a 35% higher risk for high blood lipids for white men, and a 26% higher risk for white women.
More dramatic effects on health outcomes were seen when researchers looked at childhood experiences in combination. For white women who experienced abuse and lived in a dysfunctional household, the risk for high blood lipids was 261% higher. For Black men who similarly experienced abuse and lived in a dysfunctional household, the risk for high blood lipids was 262% higher. Among participants who grew up in a household with a low level of organization, the risk for high blood lipids was 105% higher among women and 101% higher among Black men.
No relationship was seen between childhood abuse and the risk for either obesity or high blood pressure.
“Our findings demonstrate how the negative and positive experiences we have in childhood can have long-term cardiovascular consequences in adulthood and may also explain key heart disease risk disparities by race and sex,” said study author Liliana Aguayo, PhD, a social epidemiologist and research assistant professor at Emory University in Atlanta, in a press release. “This information could help inform cardiovascular disease prevention interventions and policies, particularly those that focus on children who experienced abuse or other trauma during childhood.”