MONDAY, Sept. 20, 2004 (HealthDayNews) -- Children who are abused or neglected grow up to be adults with a significantly greater risk of heart disease, a new study says.
It's the first study to show a direct link between a wide range of childhood problems and ischemic heart disease -- blockage of the arteries that leads to heart attacks and other major problems, said Maxia Dong, a medical epidemiologist at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and lead author of the report, which appears in the Sept. 21 issue of the journal Circulation.
The study used data on more than 17,000 adult members of the Kaiser Permanente Medical Group in California. It found that those who suffered emotional or physical abuse or grew up in a dysfunctional household were 30 percent to 70 percent more likely to have a heart attack or other cardiac problem.
The researchers asked about 10 different kinds of child abuse or neglect, ranging from domestic violence to parental drunkenness to physical abuse to fear-inciting behavior to divorce. There was "a dose-response relationship," Dong said, with the risk of adult heart disease increasing with the number of adverse experiences endured during childhood, she said.
"Adverse childhood experiences may cause psychological and physiological changes that eventually lead to heart disease," Dong said.
Dr. Vincent J. Filletti, of Kaiser Permanente and a member of the CDC-Kaiser Permanente research team, has documented some of those changes. Children who are abused or neglected are three times more likely to struggle with drug addiction as adults and twice as likely to be alcoholics. They're also twice as likely to smoke or to be severely obese, his studies have shown.
The new study results help explain why only half the variation in risk of heart disease can be explained by conventional risk factors such as diabetes and physical inactivity, Dong said.
"We have to recognize adverse childhood experience as a very important component of adult health," she said.
Health-care providers should be aware of that link, Dong said. "We think that doctors should talk to patients about this," she said. "Studies have shown that patients are willing to tell about childhood abuse or neglect."
Knowledge that someone had problems in childhood can help to reduce harmful behavior that increases heart risk, Dong said.
"Smoking is an addiction," she said. "People who have had childhood trauma can use smoking or alcohol as a coping mechanism. It is hard to quit smoking, and health-care providers usually don't focus on the events that lead to such destructive habits."
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has more about the long-term consequences of child abuse and neglect.