Child abuse during childhood increases the risk of developing obesity as an adult. A new large scale study investigating the impact on 112,000 participants determined how disease can manifest as much later in life. Twenty-three studies were analyzed.
The findings determined that the risk of obesity was 34 percent higher among adults who had been subjected to abuse as children than among non-abused adults. When the different forms ob abuse were analyzed, the study showed that physical abuse during childhood increased the risk of obesity by 28 percent, emotional abuse by 36 percent, sexual abuse by 31 percent, and general abuse by 45 percent. Among those who had been subjected to severe abuse, the risk increased by 50 percent, compared to 13 per cent for moderate abuse.
“The study clearly shows that difficult life events leave traces which can manifest as disease much later in life. The mechanisms behind this process include stress, negative patterns of thought and emotions, poor mental health, increased inflammation, as well as lowered immune function and metabolism,” said Erik Hemmingsson, researcher at the Huddinge Department of Medicine at Karolinska Institutet.
“These findings indicate causality, where the abuse is the cause of the obesity later in life. However, not everyone who is subjected to abuse will develop obesity, and not all obese individuals have been abused, so there are obviously other causes too. At the same time, it is important to remember that child abuse is more common than we think, and it needs to be brought to light. Between five and ten per cent of the adult population say that they have been subjected to some form of abuse during childhood,” said Erik Hemmingsson.
A new theoretical model was developed by the same researcher specifying how stressful childhood experiences increase the risk of obesity, via psychological and emotional factors. These combined factors impact negatively on metabolic mechanisms including appetite regulation, metabolism, eating behavior, sleep, inflammation and cognitive function.
“These new studies indicate that we need to take a much more holistic approach in the treatment and prevention of obesity, where we give more consideration to the individual’s childhood as well as psychological and emotional aspects. It can for example be about self-esteem and self-image, thought patterns, emotional stress factors and mental ill-health, and there may thus be a need for psychotherapy or cognitive therapy to obtain lasting positive effects on obesity,” said Erik Hemmingsson.
E. Hemmingsson, K. Johansson, S. Reynisdottir. Effects of childhood abuse on adult obesity: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Obesity Reviews, 2014; DOI: 10.1111/obr.12216
E. Hemmingsson. A new model of the role of psychological and emotional distress in promoting obesity: conceptual review with implications for treatment and prevention. Obesity Reviews, 2014; 15 (9): 769 DOI: 10.1111/obr.12197