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Abusive Childhood Raises Heart Disease Risks

Abused Children More Likely to Develop Heart Disease as Adults

WebMD Health News

Sept. 20, 2004 -- The effects of abusive childhood may not only linger in the mind, but they may also wreak havoc on the heart.

A new study shows that adults who were abused or neglected as children were at 30% to 70% higher risk of heart disease than other individuals.

Researchers say it's the first study to show that heart disease may be a possible long-term consequence of childhood trauma.

Researchers found that as the number of adverse childhood experiences, such as emotional, physical, or sexual abuse and domestic violence, increased so did the risk of heart disease. For example, adults who reported seven or more types of childhood abuse or neglect were three times more likely to have heart disease that those who reported none.

Researchers say the results indicate that child abuse and neglect are important risk factors for heart disease as adults and should be addressed for treatment and prevention efforts.

Abusive Childhood Harms Heart

In the study, researchers examined data collected from more than 17,000 middle-aged health plan members between 1995 and 1997. The surveys were completed two weeks after the participant's annual physical exam and included questions about childhood abuse, neglect, and dysfunction as well as adult health-related behaviors, such as smoking and alcohol use.

The results appear in the Sept. 21 issue of Circulation: Journal of the American Heart Association.

Overall, 10.6% of the participants had a history of heart disease, and researchers found that the risk of heart disease was strongly associated with their childhood experiences.

Of the 10 adverse childhood experiences studied, only marital discord -- divorce or separation of parents -- had no impact on heart disease risk. The other nine categories (emotional, physical, or sexual abuse; emotional or physical neglect; substance abuse, mental illness, domestic violence, or incarceration of a family member) significantly increased heart disease risk from 30% to 70%.

Researchers say exposure to these negative events may set off a chain of responses, such as depression or anger and hostility, which may lead to the adopting behaviors known to increase the risk of heart disease, such as smoking, overeating, and physical inactivity.

"We need to encourage physicians to include questions about childhood experience as part of any medical examination since these factors not only impact disease risk, but may also play a role in adult lifestyle," says researcher Maxia Dong, MD, PhD, of the CDC, in a news release. "For example, a history of [adverse childhood experiences] may make it more difficult to quit smoking."

"Only about half of the variance in ischemic heart disease can be explained by traditional risk factors such as smoking, diabetes, and physical inactivity," says Dong. "We have to recognize adverse childhood experience as a very important component of adult health.

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