Poor physical & mental health in older adults linked to childhood trauma: Study

By Shilpa Annie Joseph, Desk Reporter
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Mental Health
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Older persons who experienced physical abuse as children were much more likely to experience chronic pain and physical illnesses in later life, according to a recently published study by University of Toronto researchers.

In comparison to those who did not experience this early trauma, they had a twofold increased risk of developing depression and anxiety disorders. The study was published in the journal, ‘Aging and Health Research’.

The data for this study were drawn from a representative sample of adults aged 60 and older in the Canadian province of British Columbia. It compared 409 older adults who reported a history of childhood physical abuse to 4,659 of their peers who reported they had not been physically abused during their youth. The data were drawn from the Canadian Community Health Survey.

“Sadly, our findings suggest that the traumatic experience of childhood physical abuse can influence both physical and mental health many decades later. It also underlines the importance of assessing for adverse childhood experiences among patients of all ages, including older adults,” said Ms. Anna Buhrmann, who began this research for her undergraduate thesis in the Bachelor of Arts and Science program at McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario and is a research assistant at the Institute of Life Course & Aging at the University of Toronto.

The physical illnesses that developed included diabetes, cancer, migraines, arthritis, heart disease, diabetes, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). “The links between childhood abuse and poor physical and mental health persisted even after accounting for income, education, smoking, binge drinking, and other causes of poor health,” as per the report.

“Health professionals serving older adults need to be aware that it is never too late to refer people for counseling. A promising intervention, cognitive behavioral therapy [CBT], has been tested and found effective at reducing post-traumatic stress disorder and depressive and anxiety symptoms among survivors of childhood abuse,” commented co-author Professor Esme Fuller-Thomson, who supervised Buhrmann’s thesis research.

The researchers noted that “it was not possible for the cross-sectional study to determine the specific pathways through which experiencing physical abuse as a child affects an individual’s health later in life.” Current studies suggest that childhood physical abuse effects several physiological changes, including the dysregulation of systems that regulate the response of the body to stress.

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