Child Sexual Abuse: A Lifelong Impact
Substantial evidence shows that child and youth maltreatment has consequences far beyond the near-term physical and behavioral symptoms—in some cases impacting lifelong health and wellbeing.
In a landmark study, The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the Kaiser Permanente Health Appraisal Clinic in San Diego determined a cause-and-effect relationship between early childhood trauma (including child abuse and neglect) and the leading causes of illness and death as well as poor quality of life in the United States. The Adverse Childhood Experiences study (ACEs), included more than 17,000 Health Maintenance Organization (HMO) members undergoing a comprehensive physical examination. They chose to answer a questionnaire collecting information about experiences of childhood abuse, neglect and family dysfunction, and details of their current health status and behaviors.
Abuse at the root of health conditions
The results showed a strong and consistent relationship between an individual’s level of exposure to childhood trauma and numerous diseases. For example, a person with an ACEs score of 4 or higher on a scale of 0-7 (seven signaling the greatest exposure to abuse and dysfunction) is 260% more likely to have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) than a person with an ACEs score of 0. Similarly, those with ACEs scores higher than 4 were found to be 240% more likely to have hepatitis, 250% more likely to have a sexually transmitted disease, and 460% more likely to suffer from depression than those with no exposure to childhood trauma. People reporting a high ACEs score of 7 were found to be up to 360% more likely to suffer from coronary artery disease than those reporting low or no exposure to childhood abuse or family dysfunction.
These results show that childhood experiences of abuse and neglect, along with other social determinants of health, are related to risk factors for several of the leading causes of death in adults in the United States, and that the impact of those experiences on adult health is strong and cumulative.
Additional research has revealed similar relationships between childhood trauma and normal neurological and hormonal function, demonstrating that exposure to trauma can cause long-term changes in the brain’s function and the body’s hormonal balance. These changes are linked to appetite, distribution of abdominal fat, the regulation of blood pressure, immune function, inflammatory responses, the regulation of sleep/wake cycles and even the formation of memory.
One thing is clear: Child abuse, including child sexual abuse, is bad for normal health and development. Beyond its immediate psychological and emotional impact, we now know its effects are lifelong and life-threatening. So our societal and community strategies to prevent and combat child sexual abuse will not only keep our children safe today—they can keep them healthier as adults tomorrow.
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