Childhood Trauma Leads to Increased Risk of Heart Disease in Elders

Anahita Kodali, Medical Sciences, News, Spring 2020

Figure 1: Heart attacks are caused by a blockage in the arteries that bring blood to the heart (called the coronary arteries). Blockages are created by a buildup of plaque, which can be created when a person engages in risky behaviors like overeating or smoking.

Image Citation: Wikimedia Commons

Childhood abuse statistics are sobering. Almost 700,000 children in the United States are abused annually, and nearly 80% of the time, the abusers are the children’s parents. The most common forms of abuse are neglect, physical abuse, and sexual abuse1. Abuse in childhood can lead to trauma, which has several potential psychological impacts. Research shows that individuals who underwent childhood traumas are more depressed and anxious than their peers with relatively normal childhoods; in addition, later in life, these individuals have distorted cognition and relatively less social support2. Now, a new study shows that childhood trauma can cause physiological issues later in life, too.

Researchers from Northwestern University followed the lives of 3,600 participants from recruitment, either in 1985 or 1986, through 2018. To determine their childhood living environments, the team asked survey questions like “How often did a parent or other adult in the household make you feel that you were loved, supported, and cared for?” and “Did your family know what you were up to as a kid?” From these questions, they were able to determine the level of parental involvement in the participants life. Researchers found that the participants who experienced the most adversity from childhood familial environments were over 50% more likely to have cardiovascular problems (like heart attacks or strokes) in their 50s and 60s than participants with relatively healthier childhood environments. They also found that participants with childhood trauma were predisposed to smoking and sedentary lifestyles, which in turn lead to higher body mass indexes, high blood pressure, diabetes, and vascular dysfunction3.

In an interview with ScienceDaily, the paper’s first author Jacob Pierce, a 4th year medical student at Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine, explained that adults who underwent traumatic experiences in childhood were more likely to participate in risky behaviors like overeating and smoking as coping mechanisms; these behaviors directly impact levels of cardiovascular disease. He hypothesizes that these individuals could benefit from therapy and counseling on better coping mechanisms, but he cautions that more research  is necessary4.

These findings will surely lead to future studies on the links between childhood trauma and predisposition to risky behaviors, allowing scholars to have a better understanding of how childhood familial environments shapes the lives of adults. Hopefully with more time, these findings will also help to create improved therapeutic options for adults who underwent trauma, helping them lead healthier lives.



[1] National Statistics on Child Abuse. (n.d.). National Children’s Alliance. Retrieved from

[2] Wang, D., Lu, S., Gao, W., Wei, Z., Duan, J., Hu, S., … Li, L. (2018). The Impacts of Childhood Trauma on Psychosocial Features in a Chinese Sample of Young Adults. Psychiatry Investigation15(11), 1046–1052. doi: 10.30773/pi.2018.09.26

[3] Pierce, J. B., et. al. (2020). Association of Childhood Psychosocial Environment With 30‐Year Cardiovascular Disease Incidence and Mortality in Middle Age. Journal of the American Heart Association; DOI: 10.1161/JAHA.119.015326

[4] Northwestern University. (2020, April 28). Heart disease more likely for adults with dysfunctional childhoods: Trauma, neglect, family dysfunction in childhood leads to health issues in 50s, 60s. ScienceDaily. Retrieved April 29, 2020 from




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