July 26th, 2010
06:48 PM ET

Childhood abuse linked to adult heart disease

Adults who were physically abused during childhood are more likely later to develop heart disease.  In fact, abused children have 45 percent higher odds of heart problems later in life compared with children who are not abused, according to new research published in the journal Child Abuse & Neglect.

"If you take two people who are identical to one another, same sex, same age, same background, and the only thing different between them is that one reports being physically abused as a child, the one who was abused has a greater odds of reporting also having heart disease," said Esme Fuller-Thomson, an associate professor of Social Work at the University of Toronto.

The study sample included 13,093 adults who were part of the 2005 Canadian Community Health Survey.  The study respondents were asked whether when they were a child or adolescent, they were physically abused by someone close to them.  They were subsequently asked whether they had received a heart disease diagnosis from a health professional.

Even when researchers ruled out other possible risk factors for heart disease such as being obese or physically inactive, smoking, alcohol abuse - and other potential heart stressors like depression, parental fights, or poverty - the odds of having heart disease was still markedly higher for adults who had come from abusive homes.

"What this study suggests is that potentially those early childhood abuses are internalized and manifest in health problems later," said Fuller-Thomson, the lead study author.  Fuller-Thomson and colleagues previously found associations between childhood physical abuse and later diagnoses of cancer, osteoarthritis and migraines.

The mechanism behind the heart disease is not well-studied, but there are some interesting theories.  One may have to do with something called "biological embedding," according to the study.  Biological embedding suggests that children who experience inordinate stress during childhood later experience a dysfunctional response to any hint of future stress - whether the situation merits it or not.  Think about it as a sort of hypervigilance - an overactive fight or flight response - that never lets up.

"If a kid is bracing for a possibility like 'My father is going to beat me,' he or she might overreact to other stressors later in life," said Fuller-Thomson.  "They needed to develop that protective mechanism back then, but it may not let up."

That hyperactive response to stress may, in turn, stress the heart.

Fuller-Thomson is quick to say that the research is far from concluding that physical abuse could cause heart disease.  That would be an oversimplification.  Rather, future studies may rate it among several risk factors for heart disease, including obesity, smoking and physical inactivity.

And to the seemingly impossible idea of a solution, a way to potentially circumvent later heart disease risk that could be explained by physical abuse?  Fuller-Thomson believes that while the science is sorted out, every physically abused child deserves a mental health intervention.

"Why aren't we giving that to every kid whose been abused," said Fuller-Thomson. "It doesn't make sense to me."

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