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Early Emotional Abuse and Stroke Risk

Study shows abused kids face greater stroke risk as adults

We know emotional experiences during childhood are related are related to well-being as an adult, but not as much attention seems to be given to how their emotional health may be tied to their physical health later in life.

Recent research sheds some light: The results of a new study by neurological researchers from the Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center suggest that people who were emotionally neglected as children may have a higher risk of stroke as an adult.

"Studies have shown that children who were neglected emotionally in childhood are at an increased risk of a slew of psychiatric disorders," says study author Robert Wilson, PhD, a neuropsychologist at Rush. "However, our study is one of the few that looked at an association between emotional neglect and stroke."

The findings were published in the Sept. 19 online issue of Neurology, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology.

Uncovering signs of stroke

For the study, 1,040 participants in the Memory and Aging Project — one of the research arms of the Rush Alzheimer's Disease Center — who did not have dementia and were 55 or older took a survey measuring physical and emotional abuse before the age of 18.

Survey questions looked at a number of variables: whether participants felt loved by their parents or caregivers when they were younger, whether they felt afraid or intimidated by parents or caregivers, and whether they were physically abused. Questions about parental divorce and the family's financial circumstances were also included.

Over three and a half years, 257 people in the study died and 192 of them had a brain autopsy to look for signs of stroke. Eighty-nine study participants had signs of a stroke based on the autopsy results, while 40 of the participants had evidence of a stroke based on their medical history.

The study found that the risk of stroke was nearly three times higher in people who reported a moderately high level of childhood emotional neglect than those who reported a moderately low level. The results factored in pre-existing conditions such as diabetes, physical activity, smoking, anxiety and heart problems.

"The results add to a growing body of evidence suggesting that early life factors such as traumatic childhood experiences influence the development of physical illness and common chronic conditions of old age," says David Bennett, MD, director of the Rush Alzheimer's Disease Center and co-author of the study.

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