A longitudinal study shows stress proliferation effects from early childhood adversity and recent stress on risk for depressive symptoms among older adults

Aging Ment Health. 2022 Apr;26(4):870-880. doi: 10.1080/13607863.2021.1904379. Epub 2021 Mar 30.


Objectives: We evaluated whether the effects of recent stressful life events (SLEs) and early childhood adversities (ECAs) on depressive symptoms are consistent between men and women and across older age, and whether there was evidence for the following: stress sensitization, whereby the psychological impact of SLEs is greater for individuals with ECAs compared with those without; or stress proliferation effect, whereby those with ECAs are more likely to report more SLEs than those without ECAs to effect depressive symptoms.Method: ECAs, SLEs in the past two years, and current depressive symptoms through a modified CES-D were obtained from 11,873 individuals participating in a population representative study of older adults, yielding 82,764 observations. Mixed-effects regression models on depressive symptoms were constructed to control for multiple observations per participant and evaluate within-person effects over time, thereby reducing bias from reverse causation.Results: Results suggest a stress proliferation effect and do not support stress sensitization. ECAs contribute to vulnerability for depressive symptoms, with a dosage effect for each additional ECA. Recent SLEs result in greater depressive symptom risk, with stable effects over age and dosage effects for each additional SLE that were smaller than the effects of ECAs among men, but not women. Belonging to an ethnic minority group, having less education, and less household income at baseline were associated with greater depressive symptom risk.Conclusions: Findings suggest the importance of addressing early childhood adversity and sociodemographic factors, among at-risk older adults to mitigate life-course stress proliferative processes and thereby reduce disparate risk for depression in older age.

Keywords: Depression; adverse child events; mental health; stress generation; trauma.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Adverse Childhood Experiences*
  • Aged
  • Cell Proliferation
  • Depression* / epidemiology
  • Depression* / psychology
  • Ethnicity
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Life Change Events
  • Longitudinal Studies
  • Male
  • Minority Groups
  • Stress, Psychological / psychology