Long-Term Effects of Childhood Trauma

Goals

To understand the negative effects of childhood trauma which last into adulthood, as well as options available to mitigate those effects.

Early Findings

LONG-TERM EFFECTS

PHYSICAL HEALTH
  • Some recent evidence exists that childhood trauma - such as a parent with a mental illness or who is incarcerated - can lead to physical health effects. While these effects manifest initially in childhood, they can often last into adulthood.
  • For example, inflammation caused by childhood trauma can lead to illnesses or conditions lasting into one's adulthood. According to Dr. Nadine Burke Harris, who has studied the subject extensively, "[inflammation] leads to the wear and tear on the lining on the inside of our arteries, which is part of the reason for why we see increased risk of cardiovascular disease".
  • Largely, these long- and short-term health effects are the result of raised blood pressure and heart rate which results from traumatic experiences in childhood.
  • Alternatively, inflammation can be caused by the body's response to danger or fear, similar to how we would react if being chased by a bear. Per Dr. Harris, "when we activate our stress response, it also activates our immune system, because if you are in a forest and there’s bear, you want your immune system to be primed to bring inflammation to stabilize the wound".
  • "Studies show that the more adverse childhood experiences a person has, the higher their risk of health and wellness problems later in life," with some potential physical illnesses including asthma, coronary heart disease, stroke, and/or diabetes.
NEUROLOGICAL HEALTH
  • In addition to the effect on physical health, childhood trauma can also have a significant impact on one's neurological health lasting well into adulthood.
  • "Dr. Pierre-Eric Lutz and colleagues noted that in adults who went through severe abuse as children, the neural connections in an area of the brain associated with the regulation of emotion, attention, and various other cognitive processes are critically impaired."
MENTAL AND BEHAVIORAL HEALTH
  • Recent research has found that adults who experienced severe childhood trauma are "hampered in their ability to make good decisions as adults" as a result of an inability to appropriately consider and respond to potential risks.
  • One study on the subject had adults who had endured severe childhood trauma participate in basic gambling games where they were given "clues" as to whether or not they'd win given a certain decision or set of circumstances. Despite these clues, the adults who had experienced childhood trauma continued to make decisions counter to what was being recommended and, when they lost as a result, would become "markedly upset" as a result, no matter how minimal the loss. Additionally, these subjects took a great deal of time to make any decision - significantly longer than individuals who had not experienced childhood trauma required to make similar decisions.
  • Those adults who experienced childhood trauma are at greater risk of depression, anxiety, and death-by-suicide. Such trauma can also lead to PTSD and/or substance abuse issues in adulthood.
  • "A study lead by Penn Medicine researchers found that childhood trauma is linked to abnormal connectivity in the brain in adults with major depressive disorder (MDD)."

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