|15 January 2007
NewScientist.com news service
People who were physically or sexually abused
as children are twice as likely to have inflammatory proteins in
their blood, according to a new study. The findings could explain
why children who are abused show a higher incidence of conditions
such as heart disease and diabetes as adults, the researchers say.
Until now, it has not been clear exactly how early stress could
cause these future health problems, says Andrea Danese, a
psychiatrist at King's College London in the UK.
Danese and colleagues monitored 1000 people in
New Zealand from birth to the age of 32, noting factors that created
stress and measuring for levels of inflammation associated with
heart disease in their bloodstream. They found that people who had
been physically or sexually abused, or rejected by their mothers as
children were twice as likely to have significant levels of the
C-reactive protein, a measure of inflammation.
Anticipation of pain
The team believes that stress induces abnormal
levels of inflammation in children, which has repercussions in
adulthood. "Inflammation is a natural response to physical
trauma, such as cutting yourself or getting an infection,"
explains Danese. "But psychological stress can also trigger
inflammation, since stress is really the anticipation of pain."
This constant triggering could reduce the
children's ability to produce glucocorticoid hormones that suppress
inflammation, leading to an increase risk of heart disease, stroke,
and other illnesses as adults, says Danese. The team plan further
work to measure glucocorticoid levels.
"This is much stronger than simply saying
that people who have a harder time in childhood are more miserable
or depressed as adults," says Andrew Steptoe at University
College London, who has studied the relationship between emotional
triggers and heart disease. "They've elegantly connected
childhood to stress to a real adult risk of disease."
Danese hopes that the study will help
practitioners to identify abused children as having a high risk of
heart disease at an earlier age.