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The long-term effects of childhood trauma

By Hailie Pentleton

University of Glasgow researchers have found that childhood trauma may have a far larger impact than first thought. 

It has been found that childhood trauma can have a lasting impact on more than just your mental health. Scientists at the University of Glasgow have discovered that people who experience one or more forms of maltreatment in childhood are at higher risk of developing multiple health conditions later on in life. The research, published in the Journal of Comorbidity, examined the link between multimorbidity and the four forms of childhood maltreatment – physical, sexual, emotional, and neglect. 

Using UK Biobank data from over 157,000 participants, the researchers found that those who had experienced all four types of maltreatment were five times more likely to have four or more long-term health conditions compared to those who reported no experience of childhood maltreatment. These participants were three times more likely to report loneliness, chronic pain, and frailty, and were more likely to report feelings of social isolation. They are also more likely to have one or more mental health conditions than those without any experience of childhood maltreatment. 

Although experiencing all four forms of maltreatment was rare, the research found that 33% of participants included in the study had experienced at least one form of childhood maltreatment, indicating that childhood maltreatment affects a relatively high proportion of the population. This is in line with reports from the World Health Organisation (WHO) that almost three in four children aged between two and four regularly suffer physical and/or psychological harm at the hands of parents and caregivers – which is approximately 300 million children. They also report that a fifth of women and one in 13 men report having experienced sexual abuse between 0-17 years. It is likely, however, that these numbers are actually far higher.

Professor Frances Mair, who led the study, stated: “Our findings are in keeping with the growing body of research, looking at the impact of childhood adversity on future health and social outcomes. Our work, alongside other studies, suggests in this area, suggests that childhood maltreatment can have consequences in later life, including the development of multimorbidity in adulthood.” 

The impact of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) has been a popular research area in recent years. As listed by Public Health Scotland, ACEs include: parental abandonment, domestic violence, being the victim of neglect and/or abuse, or having a parent who suffers from a mental health condition or addiction. One study found that almost two-thirds of participants had experienced one or more ACE, and over one in five had experienced three or more ACEs. Adverse childhood experiences can have a number of negative effects in later life, aside from the risk of multimorbidity. A survey of adults in Wales found that – compared with those who reported no ACEs – those with four or more ACEs were more likely to have been in prison, have health-harming behaviours, or have committed violence in the last 12 months. 

As stated by Professor Mair: “Our findings suggest people experiencing childhood maltreatment are not only at risk of long-term health conditions in adulthood, but they are also experiencing factors that will complicate self-management and practitioner work – such as mental health problems and isolation – with implications for resources needed to manage these patients well.”

This research, alongside a growing interest in the impact of ACEs on adults, highlights a requirement for comprehensive public health approaches in local communities. There are no quick fixes for childhood adversity; you can’t take a pill and rid yourself of trauma. However, a combination of evidence-based interventions, working alongside families to prevent children from experiencing trauma, and trauma-informed care can lighten the load. All children deserve a fair start in life and a commitment to providing these measures can prevent them from experiencing the additional challenges discussed. 

The impact of childhood maltreatment is a major global challenge that requires significant investment in both prevention and support measures. The joint lead author of the research conducted at the University of Glasgow, Dr. Marianne McCallum, said that the results “add to the evidence that efforts to mitigate the impact of childhood should be seen as public health measures”.


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Janice Rosemary Davies

I have suffered three of the four forms of childhood maltreatment.