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Study Links Stressful Childhood Events to Elevated Inflammation in Adolescence

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Early Trauma May Set the Stage for Heart Disease and Other Inflammation-related Ills

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 study led by researchers at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health and the Harvard School of Public Health.

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.

The study, led by Karestan Koenen, PhD, professor of epidemiology at the Mailman School of Public Health and Natalie Slopen, a postdoctoral research fellow at the Harvard Center on the Developing Child, is online in Psychoneuroendocrinology.

The researchers 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 used two biological markers for inflammation: C-reactive protein and interleukin-6. Childhood trauma was measured using the WHAT scale.  Their results show that for each standard deviation increase in traumatic experiences before age 8, as reported by the children’s mothers, there was a 7.3% increase in the level of C-reactive protein and a 6.2% elevation in interleukin-6 at age 10. The effect on C-reactive protein was sustained through age 15.

“These findings suggest a biological pathway by which traumatic experiences in early life may influence the risk for developing chronic diseases later in the life course,” says Dr. Koenen. “C-reactive protein is a strong marker of cardiovascular disease in adults.”

Biomarkers of inflammation, she said, may aid health practitioners in identifying children and adolescents who are at risk for long term health problems. 

July 20, 2012