Poor mental and physical health among older adults can sometimes trace back to childhood abuse, a Canadian study suggests.
The study, published online July 7 in the journal Aging and Health Research, found that people who were physically abused during childhood were twice as likely to experience anxiety and depression later in life. They were also significantly more likely to develop physical illnesses such as diabetes, cancer, migraines, arthritis and heart disease.
"Sadly, our findings suggest that the traumatic experience of childhood physical abuse can influence both physical and mental health many decades later," said lead author Anna Buhrmann, a research assistant at the Institute of Life Course & Aging at the University of Toronto. "It also underlines the importance of assessing for adverse childhood experiences among patients of all ages, including older adults."
Buhrmann began the research at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, for her undergraduate thesis.
The data, from a Canadian community health survey, included a sample of adults aged 60 and older in British Columbia. It compared just over 400 older adults with a reported history of childhood physical abuse to nearly 4,700 of their peers who were not abused during their early years.
Links between childhood abuse and poor physical and mental health were apparent even after Buhrmann and her thesis advisor, Esme Fuller-Thomson, accounted for other life-defining characteristics, such as income, education, smoking and alcohol use.
"Health professionals serving older adults need to be aware that it is never too late to refer people for counseling," said Fuller-Thomson, director of the Institute of Life Course & Aging.
"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," she added in a university news release.
The study was unable to determine the specific ways in which experiencing physical abuse in childhood directly affects health later in life. But other studies suggest that childhood abuse changes a person's biology, affecting how one's body regulates stress. Future research aims to investigate how physical and mental illnesses disrupt these systems.