"Our research has already shown a link between childhood bullying and risk of mental health disorders in children, adolescents and adults, but this study is the first to widen the spectrum of adverse outcomes to include risks for cardiovascular disease at mid-life," said senior study author Louise Arseneault. She is a professor from the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience at King's College London.
"Evidently, being bullied in childhood does get under your skin," she said in a college news release.
Arseneault and her colleagues analyzed data from more than 7,100 people in a long-term study of all children born in England, Scotland and Wales during one week in 1958. Their parents provided information on whether the participants were bullied at ages 7 and 11.
By age 45, more than one-quarter of women who were occasionally or frequently bullied during childhood were obese, compared to 19 percent of those who never experienced bullying, the study found. Both men and women who were bullied during childhood were more likely to be overweight.
Compared to those who weren't bullied, men and women who were bullied had higher levels of blood inflammation, putting them at increased risk for heart attack and age-related diseases such as type 2 diabetes, according to the researchers.
Although the study found an association between being bullied and later health risks, it didn't show a direct cause-and-effect relationship.
"Bullying is a part of growing up for many children from all social groups," Arseneault said. "While many important school programs focus on preventing bullying behaviors, we tend to neglect the victims and their suffering. Our study implies that early interventions in support of the bullied children could not only limit psychological distress but also reduce physical health problems in adulthood."
Andrea Danese, a study co-author, pointed out that obesity and high blood inflammation can lead to potentially life-threatening conditions such as type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Taking steps to prevent these conditions is important, Danese said in the news release.
"The effects of being bullied in childhood on the risk for developing poor health later in life are relatively small compared to other factors," Danese added. "However, because obesity and bullying are quite common these days, tackling these effects may have a real impact."
The study was published May 20 in the journal Psychological Medicine.