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, which was published in BMJ Open, discovered that adults who reported sexual abuse by the age of 16 had 2.6 times higher risk of dying in middle age, or between the ages of 45 and 58, than those who did not report sexual abuse.
Adults who reported physical abuse by the age of 16 had a 1.7 times higher risk of premature death, while those who experienced neglect – assessed using questionnaire responses from respondents’ parents and teachers during childhood – had 1.4 times higher risk.
The researchers also investigated the relationship between early-life socioeconomic disadvantage and premature death. They discovered that those who were disadvantaged at birth (those whose father’s job was classified as unskilled manual labor) had a 1.9-fold higher risk of premature death than other socioeconomic groups. The study used data from the 1958 National Child Development Study, a nationally representative birth cohort study, which included 9,310 people born in 1958.
A new study found that adults who reported experiencing sexual abuse by the age of 16 had 2.6 times higher risk of dying in middle age — that is, between 45 and 58 — than those who did not report sexual abuse.
Dr. Nina Rogers, who led the research while at UCL and is now at the University of Cambridge, stated: “Our research demonstrates the long-term consequences of specific types of child abuse and neglect. The findings are particularly significant because these early-life adversities are common, affecting millions of people in the United Kingdom.”
The researchers looked at socioeconomic and health-related factors to see if they could explain why people 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 important in explaining mortality among those who had been physically abused or neglected, as well as among those who were economically disadvantaged.
However, none of the examined factors, which ranged from mental health to obesity to risky behavior such as illegal drug use and problem drinking, appeared to account for the increased risk of death in people who were sexually abused as children.
According to senior author Dr. Snehal Pinto Pereira (UCL Surgery & Interventional Science), “This is the first study to disentangle the independent associations between various types of child maltreatment and adult mortality. Importantly, very few studies have looked into the long-term effects of childhood neglect. As a result, I believe our finding that neglected children have a 43 percent higher risk of dying before reaching adulthood highlights a critical component of child maltreatment where knowledge of long-term outcomes is particularly important “Scarce.”
The prevalence of different early-life adversities among the cohort members included in the study varied from 1.6% (sexual abuse) to 11% (psychological abuse), with 10% classified as socioeconomically disadvantaged in early life.
At seven and eleven years old, each cohort member’s mother and the teacher answered questions that allowed the researchers to determine if they showed signs of neglect. Cohort members were 45 years old when they were asked if they had ever experienced sexual, physical, or psychological abuse or witnessed abuse of others in their family before the age of 16. The researchers then followed the cohort members for 13 years, recording deaths along the way. Psychological abuse and witnessing other people’s abuse were not independently linked 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 in the United Kingdom (MRC).
* According to the Office for National Statistics, one in every five adults aged 18 to 74 years experienced 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).