Hard Lives Take a Toll on Kids' Bodies

Childhood hardships like abuse or neglect linked to poor health

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Robert Carlson, M.D

(RxWiki News) It's no surprise that being abused is linked to various health concerns in children. Other forms of hardship, though, might also influence a child's health.

A recent study found that experiencing more adversity in childhood was linked to more health problems, even as a child was just becoming a teenager.

These researchers found that trauma or suffering within the past two years was particularly linked to generalized pain or health problems like fatigue or unexplained aches and pains.

"Seek counseling for a troubled child."

The study, led by Emalee G. Flaherty, MD, of the Ann and Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago, looked at the health outcomes of children who had experienced various types of adversity in their lives.

The researchers tracked 933 children over 10 years, gathering data through interviews and questionnaires when the kids were 4, 6, 8, 12 and 14 years old.

The researchers asked about eight different types of adversity that the children might have faced:

  • psychological abuse
  • physical abuse
  • sexual abuse
  • neglect
  • having a caregiver who abused alcohol or drugs
  • having a caregiver with depression
  • having a caregiver who was abused
  • a household member engaged in criminal behavior

Then the different situations were categorized based on whether the children experienced them in the first six years of their lives, in the second six years of their lives, within the previous two years and then overall across their lifetimes so far.

Overall, 91 percent of the children had experienced at least one of those difficult events or experiences by the time they were 14 years old.

The most common adversities reported were neglect and having a depressed caregiver, each reported by 57 percent of the participants.

In general, the more adversity the children had experienced, the more likely it was that they would have health problems.

Children who experienced adversity in their first six years of life were more likely to have health issues of any kind than kids whose difficult experiences occurred in the second six years of their lives.

Those who had experienced one of those events within the past two years were particularly more likely to be in poor health, to have a specific health problem or to have "somatic" symptoms.

Somatic symptoms are general overall health complaints that do not appear tied to a specific, identifiable illness or condition. The patient feels them, but they are not easily explained.

These kinds of symptoms can include fatigue, weight loss, headache, generalized abdominal pain or discomfort and general aches or pains, among other complaints.

Those who had experienced at least two or three of these adversities were approximately nine times more likely to have somatic symptoms.

"Childhood adversities, particularly recent adversities, already show an impact on health outcomes by early adolescence," the researchers wrote.

"These findings suggest that greater efforts to minimize or ameliorate childhood adversities, especially those occurring during adolescence, will have a demonstrable impact on the health of adolescents and adults," they concluded.

These findings were no surprise to dailyRx expert Thomas Seman, MD, a pediatrician at North Shore Pediatrics in Danvers, Mass.

"Living through stressful situations causes changes in the body and the body chemistry," Dr. Seman said. "Cortisol levels rise, and poor sleep from the anxiety or depression the stress creates causes changes in other hormones and the various body systems."

Cortisol is a hormone that increases in the body when a person experiences stress.

"When emotions flare, so do physical symptoms," Dr. Seman said. "These are not 'just in the child's head' but real changes that can be measured."

He said that long-term issues can arise from repeated exposure to stress.

"Long standing stresses will grind on the system the entire time, and physical changes resulting in decreased resistance to disease and other changes occur," Dr. Seman said.

The strain can even lead children or parents to overlook symptoms that relate to a more serious health concern.

"Living in a stressful situations changes ones perception of what is going on as well," Dr. Seman said. "They do not recognize different signs and symptoms that may signal true disease."

The study was published May 3 in the journal JAMA Pediatrics.

The research was funded by the Children's Bureau of the Office on Child Abuse and Neglect at the Administration for Children, Youth and Families. Three authors have provided expert testimony in child abuse court cases and have been paid for speaking at conference. The money from court testimony was paid to the researchers' institutions. No other conflicts of interest were reported.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
May 7, 2013
Last Updated:
October 16, 2013