Experts involved in the so-called talking therapies have known for decades that our childhood has a huge bearing on our lives as adults. It has become somewhat fashionable to dismiss these ideas as little more than unproven and subjective psycho-babble. Increasingly however, advances in science and technology are beginning to offer lines of evidence in support of the claim that stressors in childhood increase the risk of unhealthy stress responses later in life.
Anxiety disorders and depression have been associated with inflammatory markers released into the bloodstream. One study, conducted in 2006 examining men struggling with depression who had been mistreated as children, found that the immune system seemed to have an exaggerated response to stress. More recent research supports similar findings in the sense that seemingly healthy adults who were abused as children, appear to have an elevated inflammatory response to stress.
Linda Carpenter, an associate professor of psychiatry and human behavior, is lead author of this latest study. Her team investigated the effects of an applied stress test on a group of volunteers. Nineteen of the 69 adults recruited to the study reported moderate to severe neglect or abuse as children. During the stress test, which involved a mock interview and a requirement to count backwards by 13s, blood samples and other stress measures were taken. When analyzed, concentrations of interleukin-6 (produced in response to trauma) in the blood of those with a history of childhood abuse, was much higher.
Professor of psychology Janice Kiecolt-Glaser has gone as far as putting a figure on the effect of childhood trauma. She claims the long-term effects could shorten lifespan by as much as 15 years. Kiecolt-Glaser, an acknowledged expert in immunological effects resulting from stress, says that every time a cell divides it loses a little DNA. The faster the process, the more DNA is lost, and this is associated with aging, age-related diseases and death. You only have to imagine a scenario of an abused child who then, as an adult, takes on the role of caregiver to see how stress can have a major impact on wellbeing. "Childhood adversity casts a very long shadow," she said.
Linda L Carpenter, Cyrena E Gawuga, Audrey R Tyrka, Janet K Lee, George M Anderson, Lawrence H Price. Association between Plasma IL-6 Response to Acute Stress and Early-Life Adversity in Healthy Adults. Neuropsychopharmacology, 2010; DOI: 10.1038/npp.2010.159
Ohio State University. "Childhood Abuse, Adversity May Shorten Life, Weaken Immune Response Among the Elderly." ScienceDaily 16 August 2010. 3 November 2010 <http://www.sciencedaily.com /releases/2010/08/100815111450.htm>.