Subtle Long-Term Impacts of Child Abuse

Sexually and physically abused women more likely to have irregular periods

(RxWiki News) Experiencing abuse as a child means more than a higher risk of mental illness. Researchers are learning that abused children are at risk for various long-term physical issues as well.

One recent studied found that women who were physically or sexually abused in their childhood were more likely to start their periods outside the normal age range - which can affect their health later in life.

"If you're being abused, seek help immediately."

The study, led by Renée Boynton-Jarrett, MD, an assistant professor of pediatrics at the Boston University School of Medicine, aimed to find out what impact a history of childhood abuse might have on when women started menstruating.

The researchers interviewed 68,505 women enrolled in the Nurses' Health Study II, a group of participants who are being tracked long-term for a variety of health studies.

A total of 57 percent of the women in the study reported experiencing some form of physical or sexual abuse as children.

Women who reported being sexually abused as children were 49 percent more likely to start their periods early - which means before they turned 11 years old - compared to women who did not experience childhood sexual abuse.

Meanwhile, women who had been physically abused as children were 50 percent more likely to start their periods late - after age 15 - compared to unabused women.

Those who were most severely abused, however, were like the sexually abused women, more likely to start their periods early.

A girl who starts her period outside the average age range can be at higher risk for a number of life conditions.

Women who start early, before age 11, are at a higher risk for cardiovascular disease, metabolic problems, cancer and depression.

Starting late, after age 15, is associated with depression, as well as, a higher risk for lower bone mineral density, which can later increase the risk of osteoporosis.

"In our study child abuse was associated with both accelerated and delayed age at menarche [starting menstruation] and importantly, these associations vary by type of abuse, which suggest that child abuse does not have a homogenous effect on health outcomes," said Dr. Boynton-Jarrett.

"There is a need for future research to explore characteristics of child abuse that may influence health outcomes including type, timing and severity of abuse, as well as the social context in which the abuse occurs," she said.

The study was published July 25 in the Journal of Adolescent Health. The research was funded by the William T. Grant Foundation, the Charles Hood Foundation, and the Building Interdisciplinary Research Careers in Women's Health.

In addition, the Nurses' Health Study II is funded by a Public Health Service grant from the National Cancer Institute, National Institutes of Health and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The authors declared no conflicts of interest.

Review Date: 
August 9, 2012