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Why childhood trauma brings ill health later on
January 20, 2007
From New Scientist Print Edition.
CHILDHOOD abuse has long been suspected of increasing a
person's risk of developing disease later in life. Now researchers
studying inflammation in the bloodstream think they might know
why. Previous studies have suggested that childhood trauma
increases a person's risk of developing heart disease, diabetes
and other disorders normally associated with obesity in adulthood.
To investigate further, Andrea Danese at King's College London
and his colleagues monitored 1000 people in New Zealand from
birth to the age of 32, noting any factors that created stress, and
recorded levels of C-reactive protein in their blood. The protein is
a marker of inflammation and has been linked to heart disease.
They found that people who reported having been physically or
sexually abused, or rejected by their mothers at a young age,
were twice as likely to have significant levels of C-reactive protein
in their blood (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences,
Danese believes that stress induces abnormal levels of
inflammation in children, which has repercussions in adulthood.
"Inflammation is a natural response to physical trauma such as
cutting yourself or getting an infection," he says, "but
psychological stress can also trigger inflammation, because
stress is really the anticipation of pain." He suggests that constant
stress could also reduce a child's ability to produce glucocorticoid
hormones, which are the main mechanism the body uses to turn
off inflammation. His team now plans further work to measure
glucocorticoid levels in people who were exposed to stress during
"This is much stronger than simply saying that people who have a
harder time in childhood are more miserable or depressed as
adults," says Andrew Steptoe at University College London, who
has studied the relationship between emotional triggers and heart
disease. "They have elegantly connected childhood stress to a
real adult risk of disease." Danese hopes his work will help
people identify those at risk of developing heart disease at an
From issue 2587 of New Scientist magazine, 20 January 2007,