Childhood trauma clearly puts the child who experiences it under great stress; the more protracted and intense the traumas, and the more traumas the child suffers, all else being equal, the more stress is inflicted upon the child.
A very major recent study (The Adverse Childhood Experiences Study) has shown that an especially traumatic childhood (in which the child experiences several types of trauma) may reduce life expectancy by about 19 years (from approximately 79 years for those who experienced no significant trauma, to about 60 years for those who experienced many significant traumas).
In the study, the traumas experienced included the following:
– witnessing domestic violence
– emotional/verbal abuse
– physical abuse
– parental alcohol/drug misuse
– parental imprisonment
– parental separation/divorce
SPECIFIC DETAILS OF THE STUDY:
– those who had suffered 6 or more traumas, on average, lost about 19 years of life (dying, on average, at about 60 years, rather than at about 79 years, as was the average age of death of those who had suffered no significant trauma).
– those who had suffered 3 to 5 traumatic events lost, on average, 5.5 years of life, dying, on average, at 73.5 years.
-those who had suffered 2 traumatic events lost, on average, about 3 years of life, dying, on average, at about 76 years.
POSSIBLE REASONS FOR THE ASSOCIATION BETWEEN CHILDHOOD TRAUMA AND LOWER LIFE EXPECTANCY:
One theory is that childhood trauma can lead to CELL DAMAGE (specifically, inflammation and premature ageing of the cells). It is also thought that exposure to high and sustained stress in childhood can also DAMAGE DNA strands; this, in turn, can lead to increased risk of disease and premature death.
Furthermore, extreme stress in childhood (which makes it far more likely the child will go on to have a stressful adult life) leads to greater production in the body of ADRENALINE (a neurotransmitter which prepares the body for ‘fight or flight’) and also of CORTISOL (a stress hormone); these biochemical effects increase the individual’s likelihood of developing disease.
CHILDHOOD TRAUMA LEADING TO HARMFUL ADULT BEHAVIORS:
Because individuals who suffer childhood trauma tend to have much more stressful adult lives, as adults they are more likely to utilize coping strategies which are, in the long-term, damaging (these are known as MALADAPTIVE COPING STRATEGIES). They include:
– drinking alcohol to excess
– illicit drug use
– ‘comfort eating’ of junk food
All of these behaviours, linked to childhood trauma, can dramatically reduce life expectancy.
WHY NOT TO PANIC:
Although the study shows that there is an association (or correlation) between childhood trauma and lower life expectancy, this does NOT mean that childhood trauma directly and inevitably leads to losing years of life.
Rather, the link is indirect: childhood trauma tends to lead to more stress and harmful behaviours (as already outlined) and it is these which can lower life expectancy, NOT the childhood trauma in and of itself taken in isolation.
The good news that follows from this is that we are able to address our stress and harmful behaviours (such as excessive drinking, overeating etc) either through self-help or with the aid of professional therapy; therefore, the childhood trauma we experienced need NOT lead to a shorter life.
The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study”. cdc.gov. Atlanta, Georgia: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Division of Violence Prevention. May 2014.
David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).