Child abuse heralds adult inflammation

New findings from a long-term investigation indicate that child abuse leads to a potentially dangerous disruption of the body’s stress response in adulthood. Previously abused individuals display elevated blood concentrations of inflammatory substances that fight infections and repair damaged tissue, say psychologist Andrea Danese of King’s College London and her colleagues.

Prior research has linked persistent inflammation to heart disease, diabetes, and chronic lung disease.

Danese’s group analyzed data on 866 people born in Dunedin, New Zealand, between April 1972 and March 1973. Volunteers underwent medical and psychological tests at regular intervals from ages 3 to 32.

Home observations and reports from parents and children established that 83 participants had experienced abuse or serious traumas by age 11. These incidents included maternal rejection, physical abuse, sexual abuse, and two or more changes in a child’s primary caregiver.

At age 32, previously abused individuals exhibited markedly higher concentrations of two inflammatory substances—C-reactive protein and fibrinogen—than their unabused peers did, the researchers report in the Jan. 23 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Abused volunteers’ blood also carried elevated numbers of infection-fighting white blood cells.

Especially high concentrations of inflammatory substances appeared in participants who had suffered severe abuse as children, the investigators say. The findings held true when the scientists accounted for other inflammation-boosting factors, including low birth weight and use of alcohol and cigarettes.

Bruce Bower

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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