Childhood maltreatment linked to higher risk of multiple health conditions in later life

September 20, 2020

Listen to this article

Childhood maltreatment linked to higher risk of multiple health conditions in later life

One of the most worrying things about the current pandemic is the alarming increase in the incidence of child abuse. The move to working from home, coupled with unstable gig work and long-term unemployment will make this situation worse as parental relationships deteriorate due to increased proximity, stress and mental ill-health. Prior to COVID, a WHO study showed that something like 80% of all interpersonal relationships fail. Parental anger and frustration is most often taken out on children.

A new and very relevant study has shown that people who suffer one or more forms of maltreatment in childhood have a higher chance of a wide range of health problems in later life.

The scientists behind this new research used UK Biobank data from more than 157,000 participants to examine the link between the four forms of childhood maltreatment—physical, sexual, emotional and neglect—and the presence of multiple health conditions, known as multimorbidity, later in adult life.

The researchers, who published their work today in the Journal of Comorbidity, found that those who had experienced all four types of maltreatment were five times as likely to have four or more long-term health conditions, than people who reported experiencing no childhood maltreatment.

When compared with no experience of childhood maltreatment, participants experiencing all four types of maltreatment were more likely to be socially isolated, and more than three times as likely to report poor self-rated health, loneliness, frailty, and chronic widespread pain. In addition, experiencing a greater number of types of childhood maltreatment was also associated with a higher prevalence of mental health conditions.

The study also found that experience of just one type of childhood maltreatment was associated with long term health conditions, including long term pain and frailty.

While experiencing multiple types of childhood maltreatment was rare, researchers found that, overall, child maltreatment affects a relatively high proportion of people, with 33% of the participants included in the study reporting at least one form of maltreatment.

What the researchers say: “Our findings are in keeping with the growing body of research looking at the impact of childhood adversity on future health and social outcomes,” said the lead author.

There is a growing interest in the wider impact of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACES), which include various forms of child maltreatment. We know that life-long physical and mental health problems can arise from a number of childhood experiences including domestic violence, parental abandonment, having a parent with a mental health condition, or in prison (or in an ICE detention center), or living with an adult with drug or alcohol problems.

“Multimorbidity is a major global challenge,” the researchers noted. “As well as ensuring adequate support for patients experiencing complex multimorbidity, the importance of prevention is paramount.”

So, what? Statistically speaking most abusers have suffered from childhood abuse themselves. Domestic abuse of all kinds is becoming a pandemic in itself. The proximal causes are complex, but the basic problem is that we are living in ways which we were not designed for. We were not designed to work the hours we do, or to be cast out of our tribe (work is about tribe and belonging, not output). We were not designed for nuclear or single-parent families but for a situation where the band as a whole shared parenting. We were not designed to live in mass societies where loneliness prevails, but in small tribes of 150 individuals or less.

The way we live, and work, causes stress to our system and that stress causes us to take our frustrations out on those we perceive to be weaker and more vulnerable than ourselves.

Dr Bob Murray

Bob Murray, MBA, PhD (Clinical Psychology), is an internationally recognised expert in strategy, leadership, influencing, human motivation and behavioural change.

Join the discussion

Join our tribe

Subscribe to Dr. Bob Murray’s Today’s Research, a free weekly roundup of the latest research in a wide range of scientific disciplines. Explore leadership, strategy, culture, business and social trends, and executive health.

Thank you for subscribing.
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form. Check your details and try again.