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Child abuse may lead to an early death for women

Being physically or emotionally abused as a child may lead to an increased long-term risk of early death, new research suggests.

The study, published Wednesday by JAMA Psychiatry, found the association only in women, not men.

“There is previous research linking other types of childhood adversities to mortality, so we wondered whether similar types of patterns would exist for child abuse,” Edith Chen, Ph.D., of Northwestern University, told CBS News.

Chen and her colleagues examined reports of physical and emotional abuse in childhood​, as well as all-cause death rates in adulthood in a national sample of 6,285 adults. The majority of those studied were white with an average age of about 47.

Participants completed questionnaires in 1995 and 1996 about their experiences with emotional and physical abuse as children from their parents. The researchers tracked mortality data throughout the next 20 years and confirmed 1,091 deaths through October 2015.

The results showed that women who self-reported experiencing severe or moderate physical abuse or emotional abuse from their mother or father were at an increased risk of death.

Specifically, the researchers found that women who self-reported moderate childhood physical abuse and emotional abuse were about 1.3 times and 1.2 times as likely to die during the follow-up period respectively as those who did not report abuse. Women who self-reported severe childhood physical abuse were about 1.6 times as likely to die.

The association remained after the authors controlled for other potential risk factors, including childhood socioeconomic status and adult depression.

Though the study does not answer the potential reasons for the connection, experts have some theories.

In an accompanying editorial, Idan Shalev, Ph.D., of Pennsylvania State University, notes that an obvious assumption would be that early abuse can lead to increased physical and mental health problems, as well as the adoption of risky behaviors like drug and alcohol abuse as coping mechanisms, all of which can all affect longevity​.

But biological factors may also be at play. Adversity during early childhood may leave a biological “fingerprint” that could affect how body cells function over a lifetime, Shalev suggests.

The authors say they are not sure why women appear to be more vulnerable to the effects of abuse, but Chen said she believes there may be differences in how men and women cope with stress​, or that there may be differences in men’s and women’s hormonal responses to stress​, which may in turn affect longevity.

The researchers note the study is limited in that the childhood abuse was self-reported, meaning that other explanations may be possible and that the reports may not accurately represent what happened in participants’ past.

“In future research, we would like to see samples of court-verified cases of abuse studied and these children followed over decades to monitor the development of diseases and eventually mortality,” Chen said.

Still, the authors conclude “the findings suggest that women who report child abuse continue to be vulnerable to premature mortality and perhaps should receive greater attention in interventions aimed at promoting health.”