Childhood Trauma May Shorten Life By 20 Years

Researchers say study shows childhood trauma is a lifelong battle.

ByABC News
October 5, 2009, 7:32 PM

Oct. 6, 2009— -- While it may not come as a surprise that survivors of childhood traumas have more difficult lives, a new study says that those children can also expect their lives to be on average, almost 20 years shorter.

A new study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that children who experience six or more traumatic events in their childhood -- events that can include emotional, physical or sexual abuse or household dysfunction -- have an average lifespan 19 years shorter than those of their counterparts who do not suffer that degree of childhood trauma.

"The stressors tend to accumulate in people's lives, and it appears that affects the way they develop and can affect the way they think and their emotional control," said Dr. Robert Anda, who has served as the co-primary investigator on the CDC's Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study.

That stress, he said, functions "like a dose of stress poison that negatively affects how the brain develops and multiple organ systems function," and can ultimately lead to the early deaths observed in the study.

For their research, investigators followed over 17,000 adults on whom they collected health behavior and status data in 1995 through 1997. In 2006, they followed up to see which of the individuals surveyed has passed away. They found that people who reported six or more adverse childhood events lived for an average of 60 years, while those who reported fewer lived, on average, to be 79.

"They tend to take on the risk factors that lead to poor health," said Anda of childhood trauma survivors. "They smoke more, they are more likely to abuse alcohol, use illicit drugs…or to be overweight or to be physically inactive."

Also, he said, "They're twice as likely to die by 65 years than people who had none of those adverse childhood experiences."

While saying the message of the study -- that childhood trauma has deep and lasting effects -- was an important one, at least one researcher stressed that childhood trauma does not preordain later problems.

"People vary immensely in their resilience," said Judith Myers-Walls, an associate professor of developmental studies at Purdue University. "There are differences related to temperament, the response of others to the event, and the resources available to the child and family. Some children even experienced concentration-camp life during the Holocaust and emerged psychologically and physically healthy."

But other researchers stressed that people have assumed too much about the fortitude of youths.

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"People used to think that children were resilient by virtue of being young," said Dr. Victor G. Carrion, director of the Early Life Stress Research Program at Stanford University. "The reality cannot be further from the truth. The younger you are the more vulnerable you are to the effects of trauma."