Childhood Stress Cuts Life Short, Study Suggests

Stressful childhood experiences, such as verbal and physical abuse, can take years off an individual's life, a new study finds.

In a survey of more than 17,000 adults, researchers found that individuals who had been exposed to six or more so-called adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) before the age of 18 were twice as likely to die prematurely as kids who hadn't suffered those experiences.

The results, which will be published in the November issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, come on the heels of a recent study linking childhood spanking with lower IQs.

"Our hope is that, as a result of this research, child maltreatment and exposure to childhood traumatic stress in its various forms will be more widely recognized as a public health problem," said study researcher David Brown, an epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. "It is important to understand that consequences to childhood trauma can extend over an individual's life."

Brown and his colleagues reviewed data from individuals who had visited a Kaiser Permanente clinic in San Diego between 1995 and 1997 and had completed a questionnaire about their childhood. The team followed participants through 2006, using the National Death Index to determine who had died.

In the survey questions, participants had to indicate which, if any, adverse experiences they had endured, including: undergoing verbal or physical abuse; having a battered mother and witnessing domestic violence; living in a household with substance abuse or mental illness; having an incarcerated household member; or having parents who separated or divorced.

They found that two-thirds of study participants reported at least one such adverse childhood experience. And on average, those reporting six or more ACEs died at age 60, compared with low-risk children (no ACEs) who lived to age 79.

The researchers linked some of this increased risk of premature death to conditions (and behaviors) that have been associated with ACEs in past research, including heart disease and stroke, smoking and alcohol abuse, depression, general health and social problems, among others.

Brown notes that he can't say whether the childhood stressors actually cause premature deaths, as causation is always difficult to establish with a single study. However, as prior research has linked ACEs and health problems, he thinks the new results suggest an accumulation of ACEs can cause premature death (compared with individuals with no ACEs).

"The central message of the publications from the ACE study is that our children are confronted with a terrible burden of stressors that negatively affects their neurodevelopment, which leads to health problems and diseases throughout the lifespan," Brown told LiveScience. "As a consequence, these stressors may cause them to die younger."

Jeanna Bryner
Live Science Editor-in-Chief

Jeanna served as editor-in-chief of Live Science. Previously, she was an assistant editor at Scholastic's Science World magazine. Jeanna has an English degree from Salisbury University, a master's degree in biogeochemistry and environmental sciences from the University of Maryland, and a graduate science journalism degree from New York University. She has worked as a biologist in Florida, where she monitored wetlands and did field surveys for endangered species. She also received an ocean sciences journalism fellowship from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.