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Last Updated: Tuesday, 16 January 2007, 00:05 GMT
Child abuse link to future health
Children who are abused have poorer health as adults
Children who suffer abuse have an increased risk of physical ill health in adulthood, results suggest.

Researchers at King's College London followed 1,000 people in New Zealand from birth to the age of 32.

A third of those who were maltreated had high levels of inflammation - an early indicator of conditions such as heart disease and diabetes.

Preventing abuse in childhood could help to reduce the burden of illness in adults, experts said.

Participants in the study, which is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, were monitored as children and were also asked to recall any maltreatment they had suffered as children at the age of 26.

What we have observed is the long-term effect of stress from a phase when children are particularly vulnerable
Dr Andrea Danese, study leader

The researchers took into account many other factors which could account for poor health, including stress, depression, poor status attainment as well as smoking, diet and physical activity.

They took blood samples to measure levels of C-reactive protein, fibrinogen and white blood cells - substances which are known to be associated with inflammation in the body.

Adult survivors of childhood maltreatment who appeared to be healthy were twice as likely to show clinically relevant levels of inflammation compared to those who had not been maltreated.

Inflammation is known to predict the development of conditions such as heart disease and diabetes.

C-reactive protein in particular has been recommended by the American Heart Association as a screening tool to help assess a person's risk of developing cardiovascular disease.

Public health

Study leader Dr Andrea Danese, a psychiatrist at King's College London, said that public health interventions to prevent maltreatment in childhood could help reduce illness in adults.

"We know already that adults who were maltreated in childhood have worse health than other people, but we had no idea how that could be explained so what we're adding here is one of the possible explanations."

Dr Danese explained that stress or fright can lead to inflammation, but if physical harm does not occur the body needs to switch it off quickly or it will cause damage.

Previous research has shown that early-life stress can reduce levels of a hormone - glucocorticoid - that normally works to switch off the inflammatory response.

Dr Danese hypothesised that in maltreated children low levels of glucocorticoids may lead to persistently high levels of inflammation.

"What we have observed is the long-term effect of stress from a phase when children are particularly vulnerable.

"Whether this is reversible is a question we are unable to answer."

Professor Brent Taylor, professor of child health at University College London, said the findings added biological plausibility to what experts already knew.

"It makes sense. We have known for a long time that a bad environment and poor quality parenting is associated with reduced life expectancy as well as other health problems.

"It perhaps suggests there should be more focused attention on preventing maltreatment in childhood."

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