Cable News Network, May 17, 1998

Childhood Abuse Leads to Adult Disease, Study Shows
By Maggie Fox, Health and Science Correspondent

WASHINGTON, May 14 (Reuters) - Abused children often grow up to be physically sick adults, plagued by alcoholism, depression, addictions and obesity, a report released on Thursday found.

Psychologists and child experts have been saying for years a troubled childhood has repercussions in adulthood, but this time the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) weighed in with a full report.

Dr. Vincent Felitti of the Kaiser Permanente medical group in San Diego, Dr. Robert Anda of the CDC and colleagues interviewed 9,000 people about a wide variety of factors in their lives and their health, and found episodes of childhood abuse were closely linked with bad health habits in adulthood.

``Persons who had experienced four or more categories of childhood exposure, compared to those who had experienced none, had four to 12-fold increased health risks for alcoholism, drug abuse, depression and suicide attempt,'' the report reads.

Such people were two to four times more likely to smoke, to be generally ill, to have had more than 50 sex partners and thus to have sexually transmitted diseases, and up to 1.6 times more likely to be obese.

Abuse included sexual abuse, psychological abuse, physical abuse and ``household dysfunction'' such as growing up with a parent who was an addict or alcoholic, criminal or wife-beater.

The researchers said the effects of such experiences were probably hard-wired into the brains of children.

``There are two mechanisms here -- the psychological and emotional consequences and, two, the long-term neurological consequences,'' Felitti told a news conference.

``That may have a lot to do with why change is so hard to bring about.''

Anda said a baby is born with a billion neurons, but most of the connections are made by age 12. ``It's hard to change the brain after age 12,'' he said.

He said people probably engaged in dangerous behaviors to try to wipe out the pain of their childhood. ``The smoking of a cigarette, for instance -- a child of that background may experience immediate relief,'' Anda said.

Felitti said such experiences probably combined with genetics to produce people who were addictive or depressed.

He said doctors and other health workers must be aware of the possibility patients may be reacting to childhood abuse.

``This information must be routinely sought in all patients -- not just people who look some way or act some way,'' Felitti said. ``We have found that responding to 'yes' with the question: 'And tell me how you think that has affected you later in life' is extremely effective,'' he added.

``We have seen again and again that having someone tell the worst secret of their life, and seeing that they are still accepted as a human being, is extremely important.''

In the long run this would save time, he said. ``Large amounts of time are already being spent on these patients,'' he said.

He said Kaiser Permanente was testing home visitor programs that it was hoped would reduce incidences of abuse. Another study was being run with the CDC, tracing people from birth, to see if the interventions prevented later health problem.

``I think in general our culture needs to look at where it is spending its money,'' Anda said.

Perhaps it would be better to spend more on preventing the causes of disease, than the billions now spent on ``end-stage'' disease such as cancer and heart disease, he said.

They said their findings were important because the main causes of sickness and death in the United States were now related to lifestyle and behavior -- especially the leading killer, heart disease.

Copyright 1998 Reuters Limited.All rights reserved.

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