Objective: Child maltreatment has been linked to negative adult health outcomes; however, much past research includes only clinical samples of women, focuses exclusively on sexual abuse and/or fails to control for family background and childhood characteristics, both potential confounders. Further research is needed to obtain accurate, generalizable estimates and to educate clinicians who are generally unaware of the link between childhood abuse and adult health. The purpose of this project is to examine how childhood physical abuse by parents impacts mid-life mental and physical health, and to explore the attenuating effect of family background and childhood adversities.
Methods: We analyzed population-based survey data from over 2,000 middle-aged men and women in the Wisconsin Longitudinal Study using self-reported measures of parental childhood physical abuse, mental health (depression, anxiety, anger), physical health (physical symptoms and medical diagnoses), family background, and childhood adversities.
Results: Parental physical abuse was reported by 11.4% of respondents (10.6% of males and 12.1% of females). In multivariate models controlling for age, sex, childhood adversities, and family background, we found that childhood physical abuse predicted a graded increase in depression, anxiety, anger, physical symptoms, and medical diagnoses. Childhood physical abuse also predicted severe ill health and an array of specific medical diagnoses and physical symptoms. Family background and childhood adversities attenuated but did not eliminate the childhood abuse/adult health relationship.
Conclusions: In a population-based cohort of middle-aged men and women, childhood physical abuse predicted worse mental and physical health decades after the abuse. These effects were attenuated, but not eliminated, by age, sex, family background, and childhood adversities.