The social environments in which we grow up are critical in determining our well-being and health later in life. Most Americans (67%) report having experienced at least one traumatic event in childhood, and a new study shows that these experiences have significant impacts on our health risks as adults. Physical illnesses such as obesity and chronic pain are affected, but mental disorders show the most significant association, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), bipolar disorder, substance abuse, and depression.
Scientists from the Desert Research Institute (DRI) and the University of Nevada, Reno led the study, published Oct. 6 in the journal Frontiers in Psychiatry. More than 16,000 Reno-area people have volunteered for the research as part of the Healthy Nevada Project, one of the most visible genomics studies in the United States, powered by Renown Health.
Participants answered questions about their social environment before the age of 18, including experiences of emotional, physical or sexual abuse, neglect and substance abuse in the household. The researchers combined this information with anonymized medical records to build on existing research on how childhood trauma affects health outcomes.
“The study provides insight into how the social determinants of health may influence health disorders in adults,” said Robert Read, MS, a researcher at DRI’s Center for Genomic Medicine and one of the leading study authors.
Almost two-thirds (66%) of participants recalled at least one type of trauma and almost a quarter (24%) said they had experienced more than four. Women and people of African American and Latino descent reported a higher prevalence of traumatic experiences than men and people of European descent, but people from low-income households were most affected.
Thirteen mental illnesses showed the most statistically significant associations, including mood disorders, depression, PTSD, anxiety disorders, eating disorders, schizophrenia, and substance abuse. For each type of reported abuse experienced in childhood, a participant’s risk of PTSD increased by 47%. Each cumulative trauma also increased the risk of attempted suicide by 33%.
The researchers note that while the study is rooted in Nevada — which has high rates of adults with mental illness and limited access to care — it opens a window into deep-rooted public health issues across the country.
“Tackling the prevalence of childhood trauma is a complex issue,” said Karen Schlauch, Ph.D., a bioinformatics researcher at DRI and one of the study’s lead authors. “Personal experiences of neglect and abuse are more difficult to address, but many of the underlying issues can be addressed at the community level, such as food insecurity and poverty.”
Beyond improving our understanding of how early social environments influence our health, Schlauch says the next target for research is to understand how childhood trauma may be linked to specific traits like l impulsiveness, an important trait in Nevada gambling communities.
“In order to address the devastating effects of early adversity on the health and inequities of the local population, we need to focus on the dominant social and behavioral mechanisms affecting Nevadans,” said Stephanie Koning, Ph.D. assistant professor in the School of Public Health at the University of Nevada, Reno, and co-author of the study. “Beyond how population needs guide our research, we partner with community organizations to promote evidence-based interventions at the individual, community, and state levels.”
As the study team expands its analysis of the health impacts of early-life adversity, it explores how to use the Healthy Nevada Project database to inform community interventions. They have partnered with community-based institutional partners, including the Stacie Mathewson Behavioral Health & Addiction Institute and Northern Nevada HOPES, for research and advocacy focused on promoting healthy social environments for childhood and lifelong well-being. throughout an individual’s life.
Karen A. Schlauch et al, using phenome-wide association studies and the SF-12 quality of life measure to identify the profound consequences of negative childhood experiences on the mental and physical health of adults in a northern Nevada population, Frontiers in Psychiatry (2022). DOI: 10.3389/fpsyt.2022.984366
Provided by the Desert Research Institute
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