A lack of parental affection and abuse can affect children physically and emotionally throughout their adult life, says a study by the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). The study was announced on September 26, 2013, and was published online in the “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.”
The psychological and physical damage from childhood abuse has been well documented by previous studies. For example, this type of toxic stress has been linked to significant health risks such as cardiovascular disease, metabolic syndrome, and elevated cholesterol. The former research studied the physical effects of abuse on separate symptoms.
The current study examines the effects of the lack of parental affection and abuse throughout the entire regulatory system. The scientists found a strong biological connection between early life experiences and the participants’ physical health.
“Our findings suggest that there may be a way to reduce the impact abuse has, at least in terms of physical health,” said Judith E. Carroll, he study’s lead author and a research scientist at the Cousins Center for Psychoneuroimmunology at UCLA. “If the child has love from parental figures they may be more protected from the impact of abuse on adult biological risk for health problems than those who don’t have that loving adult in their life.”
- There is a significant link between multisystem health risks and and childhood abuse
- Participants who reported that their parents were warm and affectionate in their childhood have lower multisystem health risks
- Participants who reported low levels of parental affection and love, and high abuse levels in childhood had the highest multisystem risk in adulthood
- The findings suggest that toxic childhood stress alters their neural stress response levels, creating an emotional and physical state in response to a sense of being threatened that is difficult to turn off
- Childhood abuse can be connected to age-related diseases such as cardiovascular disease
The researchers studied data about 756 adults who participated in a survey called the Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults (CARDIA). The researchers determined the stress of the participants’ childhood on a self-reporting survey called the Risky Families Questionnaire.
There were 18 biological markers of health risk that were used such as blood pressure, blood sugar regulation, cholesterol, heart rate, stress hormone, inflammation, and waist circumference. A summary index of these markers is called an “allostatic load.” Upper range values indicated a higher risk for disease. Former research showed that higher levels of allostatic load indicated the possibility of significant health occurrences such as declines in cognitive or physical functioning, or a stroke or heart attack.
Researchers suggest that parental affection and warmth can protect children from the toxic effects of childhood stress.
“It is our hope that this will encourage public policy support for early interventions,” Carroll said. “If we intervene early in risky families and at places that provide care for children by educating and training parents, teachers, and other caregivers in how to provide a loving and nurturing environment, we may also improve the long term health trajectories of those kids.”