Child Maltreatment as a Root Cause of Mortality Disparities

Idan Shelav, assistant professor of biobehavioral health, Christine Heim, professor of biobehavioral Health, Jennie Noll, Director of the Child Maltreatment Solutions Network and professor of human development and family studies, recently published an editorial article on new findings regarding the correlation between child abuse and reduced longevity.

The article opens with a list of issues evidenced and generally accepted to be caused in part by childhood maltreatment that includes immediate physical injuries, mental and psychological health disorders, and even chronic illnesses, like cancer and heart disease. That facing abuse early in life may also mean shaving years off the end of it – and, moreover, only in women – is a new finding.

The study, conducted by Edith Chen, professor of psychology at Northwestern University, and colleagues revisited questionnaires from 1995 and 1996 on self-reported early emotional and physical abuse. They compared findings with the National Death Index to see who survived the 20-year follow-up period and noticed a striking trend among the female participants.

Their results show women who reported emotional abuse in childhood were 22 percent more likely to die from the time they filled out the survey. The percentage increases with the graveness of the maltreatment, capping at 58 percent for severe physical abuse.

According to Shelav, Heim, and Noll, these results raise “important questions about underlying mechanisms and possible points of intervention.

“There may be several reasons for this sex specificity that have yet to be explored,” the professors continue in their editorial. “From an evolutionary, life-history perspective, organisms facing risks that could reduce their changes of surviving to reproductive age should, if possible, accelerate their development.” Such rapid growth is taxing, but when the opportunity to pass on its genes is jeopardized, according to this theory, the female body might be willing to sacrifice personal long-term health. 

Also discussed is the possibility that men and women cope with stress in different ways. 

While the study looked at only stunted mortality and not the cause of death – implying the necessity for further research – Shelav, Heim, and Noll consider it appropriate grounds to call for “rigorous science to mobilize public investment in prevention and treatment.” With trauma-calculating adversity scores, for example, they say we can work towards monitoring stress and providing a safer atmosphere for the individual and the entire family.

The editorial by Shelav, Heim, and Noll is also referenced in an NPR article.