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Psychologist explores connection between child abuse and mortality risk in women

A West Virginia University researcher is investigating links between child abuse and mortality risk in women.

Co-author on a recent study linking self-reported child abuse to death in women, assistant professor of psychology Nicholas Turiano is investigating why childhood misfortune, such as child abuse, could cause deaths in women sooner than men. 

Nicholas Turiano

“Our work shows that individuals who have adverse childhoods psychologically may develop sub-optimally in terms of their personality traits,” Turiano said. “Is this something that’s altering individuals’ psychological development? We do know that misfortune is associated with poor behaviors and poor coping strategies, and that’s part of the reason why these individuals become unhealthy and die earlier.” 

The child abuse was linked to a variety of adult psychiatric problems, including depression, substance abuse and post-traumatic stress disorder. The self-reported data also included reports of poor health, functional limitations and chronic diseases, such as respiratory conditions and diabetes. 

“The most important policy implication of our findings is timing. We need to know when this misfortune happens earlier rather than later,” Turiano said. “If (misfortune) is influencing personality development, then these individuals may have problems their whole lives. We really need to get them on a better path earlier in life.”

The longitudinal study used data from questionnaires completed in 1995 and 1996 by more than 6,000 adults ages 25-74. As of October 2015, 1,091 of the participants, or 17.4 percent, were confirmed dead from follow-up mortality data tracked across 20 years. While the women who had experienced child abuse were at an increased risk of death, there was no association for the men.

“Misfortune is associated with mortality risk, but what comes in between that? There are so many possible mechanisms,” Turiano said. “Is it through engaging in self-medicating behaviors? Do they experience poor psychological adjustment?”

Turiano is exploring social mechanisms of misfortune to gain a better understanding as to why women have an increased mortality risk. 

“If you are experiencing misfortune, a lot of it is from (immediate family members). If you are experiencing misfortune from them, are you developing these attachment relationships as you should be? Are you able to trust people? Going forward in life, are you a person who doesn’t have a strong social network to buffer life challenges?” Turiano said. “Maybe you’ve never developed those intimate relationships, and that persists through an individual’s whole life.”  

Resilience factors may also provide explanations as to why women have an increased mortality risk. 

“When people experience misfortune, not all of them lead lives that are terrible with bad behaviors, bad social networks or bad psychological function—some are perfectly fine,” Turiano said. “Is it something genetically different about them, that they have some innate ability to be resilient? Or is it something they’ve learned that has developed over time? Those are some unanswered questions we are really curious to explore further.” 

One segment of data Turiano anxiously awaits for further research is cause of death.

“There are so many issues we just don’t know,” Turiano said. “The cause of death (data) will provide a richer examination of the underlying causes of why these people are actually dying.”

The original study, “Association of Reports of Childhood Abuse and All-Cause Mortality Rates in Women,” was published in JAMA Psychiatry this fall. 

Photo credit: 55Laney69 

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