According to a new study, persons who reported sexual abuse before the age of 16 had a 2.6 times higher chance of dying in middle age – that is, between the ages of 45 and 58 – than those who did not disclose sexual abuse. Children who are sexually or physically abused or neglected as children are more likely to die prematurely as adults, according to a new study conducted by researchers at UCL and the University of Cambridge that examined data from the 1950s to the present.
The study, published in the journal BMJ Open, discovered that persons who reported sexual abuse by the age of 16 had a 2.6 times higher risk of dying in middle age – between the ages of 45 and 58 – than those who did not disclose sexual abuse.
Adults who reported physical abuse by the age of 16 had a 1.7 times greater risk of premature mortality, while those who experienced neglect – measured using questionnaire responses from respondents’ parents and teachers during childhood – had a 1.4 times higher risk.
The researchers also investigated the relationship between early-life socioeconomic deprivation and premature death. They discovered that those who were disadvantaged at birth (those whose father’s work was classified as unskilled manual labor) had a 1.9-fold higher risk of premature death than other socioeconomic groups.
This study is the first to disentangle the independent associations between different types of child maltreatment and mortality in adulthood. Importantly, very few studies have considered the long-term implications of experiencing neglect in childhood.Dr Snehal Pinto Pereira
The study used data from the 1958 National Child Development Study, a nationally representative birth cohort study, which included 9,310 participants born in 1958. Dr Nina Rogers, who conducted the research while at UCL and is now at the University of Cambridge, stated: “Our research demonstrates the long-term implications of specific types of child maltreatment and neglect. The findings are particularly significant because these early-life adversity are common, affecting millions of people in the United Kingdom.”
The researchers looked at socioeconomic and health-related characteristics to see whether they could explain why persons who were abused or neglected as children, or who were born into poverty, were more likely to die in middle age. They discovered that smoking appeared to be particularly crucial in explaining death among those who had been physically mistreated or neglected, as well as among those who were economically disadvantaged.
However, none of the analyzed characteristics, which ranged from mental health to obesity to dangerous behavior such as illegal drug use and problem drinking, appeared to account for the increased risk of death in persons who were sexually abused as children.
“This study is the first to disentangle the independent associations between different types of child maltreatment and mortality in adulthood. Importantly, very few studies have considered the long-term implications of experiencing neglect in childhood. I therefore think our finding that children who are neglected have a 43 percent higher risk of dying early in adulthood highlights a critical criterion,” said senior author Dr Snehal Pinto Pereira (UCL Surgery & Interventional Science).
The prevalence of various early-life adversities ranged from 1.6 percent (sexual abuse) to 11 percent (psychological abuse) among the cohort members included in the study, with 10% classed as socioeconomically disadvantaged in early life.
At seven and eleven years old, each cohort member’s mother and teacher completed questions that allowed the researchers to determine whether they displayed evidence of neglect. When cohort members were 45 years old, they were asked if they had ever experienced sexual, physical, or psychological abuse or seen abuse of others in their family before the age of 16. The researchers then tracked the cohort members for 13 years, recording deaths along the way. Psychological abuse and witnessing other people’s maltreatment were not independently associated to an increased risk of dying young.
The research was funded by the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute on Aging (NIA), the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), and the Medical Research Council of the United Kingdom (MRC).
According to the Office for National Statistics, one in every five adults aged 18 to 74 years suffered at least one form of child abuse before the age of 16, whether it was psychological abuse, physical abuse, sexual abuse, or witnessing domestic violence or abuse (8.5 million people).