Contact: Jessica Chang, Ph.D.
For Release: Immediately
Building a strong network of supportive friends and family members in adulthood appears to significantly cut the known risk for earlier death among people abused as children, suggests a pioneering 20-year study of mostly middle-aged adults released today. The study was reported at the American Psychosomatic Society meeting in Louisville, Ky. “In fact, the more support people say they’re receiving as adults, the less likely they were to have died about two decades later,” says study author Jessica Chiang, Ph.D., a psychologist at the Northwestern University Institute of Policy Research.
Childhood abuse has been linked to serious health problems such as heart disease and some cancers, as well as earlier death. But this study is believed to be unique in looking at how supportive relationships in the prime of life might affect later death rates of previously abused children. There were more than 6,000 study participants, most in mid-life at the outset. They were asked about physical and emotional abuse during childhood, as well as current levels of support. Researchers wanted to know if participants had caring partners, family members or friends in whom they could confide, who could be relied upon for help and who understood how the participant felt about things. About 11% said they’d endured severe physical abuse as children, 26% reported moderate physical abuse and 36% said they’d had emotional abuse in childhood.
When researchers looked at death rates about 20 years later, they were able to control for medical conditions, health behaviors and demographic facts recorded at the start—all known to affect survival. Still, the value of supportive relationships stood out as an independent protector, apparently extending life. Among those emotionally abused as children, the risk of death was 20% less if they’d enjoyed strong support from others, compared to the formerly abused who lacked support; it was 19% to 26% lower for adults who had been physically abused, depending on severity. And this support made a stronger impact for the formerly abused than for people not abused in childhood. Among those who hadn’t been abused, support in adulthood cut their death rate by 7% to 8%.
“What’s hopeful about this is that it’s not like people are set up for poor health for life if they were abused as kids. Even decades later, you can intervene,” says Chiang. “By building supportive relationships adults may be able to offset this initial higher risk of poor health and premature death.”
The American Psychosomatic Society (APS) (http://www.psychosomatic.org), founded in 1943, is an international multidisciplinary academic society that organizes an annual scientific meeting and educational programs. Psychosomatic Medicine is its scientific journal. The membership of over 700 is composed of academic scientists and clinicians in medicine, psychiatry, epidemiology, health psychology and allied health services. The mission of the APS is “to advance and integrate the scientific study of biological, psychological, behavioral and social factors in health and disease.”