Childhood traumas strongly impact both mental and physical health, new study shows

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The social environments in which we grow up are critical in determining our well-being and health later in life. Most Americans (67%) report experiencing at least one traumatic event in childhood, and a new study shows that these experiences have a significant impact on our health risks as adults. Physical diseases such as obesity and chronic pain are affected, but mental disorders show the most significant association, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), bipolar disorder, substance abuse and depression.

Scientists from the Desert Research Institute (DRI) and the University of Nevada, Reno led the study, published Oct. 6 in the journal Frontiers in psychiatry. More than 16,000 people from the Reno area volunteered for the survey as part of the Healthy Nevada Project, one of the most visible genomic studies in the United States, made possible by Renown Health.

Participants answered questions about their social environments before age 18, including experiences of emotional, physical, or sexual abuse, neglect, and substance abuse in the household. The researchers combined this information with anonymized medical records to build on existing research on how childhood trauma affects health outcomes.

“The study provides insight into how the social determinants of health may influence health disorders in adults,” said Robert Reed, MS, a researcher at DRI’s Center for Genomic Medicine and one of the study’s lead authors.

Nearly two-thirds (66%) of participants recalled at least one type of trauma, and nearly a quarter (24%) reported experiencing more than four. Women and people of African-American and Latino descent reported a higher prevalence of traumatic experiences than men and those of European descent, but people in low-income households were most affected.

Thirteen mental illnesses showed the most statistically significant associations, including mood disorders, depression, PTSD, anxiety disorders, eating disorders, schizophrenia, and substance abuse. For each reported type of abuse experienced in childhood, participants’ risk for PTSD increased by 47%. Any cumulative trauma also increased the risk of a suicide attempt by 33%.

The researchers note that while the study is rooted in Nevada — which has high rates of adults with mental illness and poor access to care — it provides a window into deep-seated public health problems across the nation.

“Combating the prevalence of childhood trauma is a complex problem,” said Karen Schlauch, PhD, a bioinformatics researcher at DRI and one of the study’s lead authors. “Personal experiences of neglect and abuse are more challenging to address, but many of the underlying issues can be addressed at the community level, such as food insecurity and poverty.”

Beyond improving our understanding of how early social environments affect our health, Schlauch says the next research goal is to understand how childhood trauma can be linked to specific traits like impulsivity — a prominent trait in Nevada’s gambling communities.

“In order to address the devastating impacts of early life adversity on local population health and disparities, we must focus on the dominant social and behavioral mechanisms affecting Nevadans,” said Stephanie Koning, Ph.D., assistant professor of of Public Health at the University of Nevada, Reno, and co-author of the study. “In addition to how population needs drive our research, we collaborate with community-based organizations to promote evidence-based interventions at the individual, community and state levels.”

As the study team expands its analysis of the health impacts of early life adversity, they are exploring how to use the Healthy Nevada Project database to inform community-based interventions. They have collaborated with institutional partners in the community—including the Stacey Mathewson Institute for Behavioral Health and Addiction and Northern Nevada HOPES—on research and advocacy focused on promoting healthy social environments and well-being in childhood throughout the individual’s life.

More information:
Karen A. Schlauch et al. Frontiers in psychiatry (2022). DOI: 10.3389/fpsyt.2022.984366

Provided by Desert Research Institute

Citation: Childhood traumas strongly affect both mental and physical health, new study shows (2022, Nov. 8) Retrieved Nov. 9, 2022, from https://medicalxpress.com/news/2022-11-childhood-traumas-strongly- impact-mental.html

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