A new UCLA study has for the first time investigated the life long systemic effects of abuse and lack of parental affection across the body’s entire regulatory system. The research published in the Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences has found a strong biological link for how negative early life experiences affect physical health.
The toxic influence has a long term physical and emotional toll.
“Our findings suggest that there may be a way to reduce the impact abuse has, at least in terms of physical health,” said Judith E. Carroll, a research scientist at the Cousins Center for Psychoneuroimmunology at UCLA, and the study’s lead author. “If the child has love from parental figures they may be more protected from the impact of abuse on adult biological risk for health problems than those who don’t have that loving adult in their life.”
The same results are presumably obtained if children are deliberately told that one parent does not love them and where a positive parental relationship is destroyed by a toxic parent, who undermines and destroys the parent-child relationship, substantially increasing the toxic stress that children are exposed to.
The study population group consisted of 756 adults who participated in a study called Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults (CARDIA). They measured 18 biological markers of health risk, such as blood pressure, heart rate, stress hormone, cholesterol, waist circumference, inflammation, and blood sugar regulation, and added up their risks across these markers to create a summary index called “allostatic load.” Values at the upper range across these markers indicated they were at higher biological risk for disease. Previous research has shown that higher levels of allostatic load are associated with increased likelihood of a negative health event such as a heart attack or stroke, or show declines in physical or cognitive functioning.
To investigate the study subjects’ childhood stress the researchers used a well-validated self-report scale called the Risky Families Questionnaire.
They found a significant link between reports of childhood abuse and multisystem health risks But those who reported higher amounts of parental warmth and affection in their childhood had lower multisystem health risks The researchers also found a significant interaction of abuse and warmth, so that individuals reporting low levels of love and affection and high levels of abuse in childhood had the highest multisystem risk in adulthood.
The researchers suggest that toxic childhood stress alters neural responses to stress, boosting the emotional and physical arousal to threat and making it more difficult for that reaction to be shut off.
“Our findings highlight the extent to which these early childhood experiences are associated with evidence of increased biological risks across nearly all of the body’s major regulatory systems” said Teresa Seeman, professor of medicine in the division of geriatrics at the David Geffen School of Medicine and of epidemiology at the Fielding School of Public Health at UCLA, and the paper’s senior author. “If we only look at individual biological parameters such as blood pressure or cholesterol, we would miss the fact that the early childhood experiences are related to a much broader set of biological risk indicators — suggesting the range of health risks that may result from such adverse childhood exposures.”
“It is our hope that this will encourage public policy support for early interventions,” Carroll said. “If we intervene early in risky families and at places that provide care for children by educating and training parents, teachers, and other caregivers in how to provide a loving and nurturing environment, we may also improve the long term health trajectories of those kids.”
J. E. Carroll, T. L. Gruenewald, S. E. Taylor, D. Janicki-Deverts, K. A. Matthews, T. E. Seeman. Childhood abuse, parental warmth, and adult multisystem biological risk in the Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults study. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2013; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1315458110