Stressful childhood events linked to elevated inflammation in adolescence

Children who experienced traumatic events such as abuse or parental separation before age 8 are more likely to show elevated levels of inflammation at ages 10 and 15, according to a new study led by Harvard School of Public Health and Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health researchers. While previous studies have linked childhood adversity to inflammation in adulthood, few have examined whether childhood adversity influences inflammation in an observable manner during childhood or adolescence and if these effects are sustained over time. Inflammation has been shown to increase adults’ risk of heart disease and other ailments.

Lead author Natalie Slopen, a postdoctoral research fellow at HSPH and the Harvard Center on the Developing Child, and her colleagues drew from the health data of 5,802 children born between April 1991 and December 1992 who participated in the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children. They found that each standard deviation increase on a scale measuring traumatic childhood experiences before age 8 (as reported by the children’s mothers) correlated with increases in two inflammatory markers by age 10 (C-reactive protein by 7.3% and the cytokine interleukin-6 by 6.2%), and that effect on C-reactive protein was sustained through age 15.

These findings suggest a biological pathway in which adverse experiences in early life may influence risk for chronic diseases. Biomarkers of inflammation may aid health practitioners in identifying children and adolescents who are at risk for long term health problems.

The study appeared online in Psychoneuroendocrinology on June 21, 2012.

Learn more

Harvard University Center on the Developing Child

VIDEO: The Toxic Stress of Early Childhood Adversity: Rethinking Health and Education Policy (The Forum at Harvard School of Public Health)

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