The social environment in which we grow up is crucial in determining our well-being and health later in life. Most Americans (67%) report experiencing at least one traumatic event in childhood, and a new study shows that these experiences have a significant impact on our health risks as adults. Physical illnesses such as obesity and chronic pain are implicated, but mental disorders show the most significant association, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), bipolar disorder, substance abuse and depression.
Scientists from DRI and the University of Nevada, Reno led the study, published Oct. 6 in the journal Frontiers in Psychiatry. More than 16,000 people from the Reno area volunteered for the study as part of the Healthy Nevada Project, one of the most visible genomic studies in the United States, supported by Renown Health. Participants answered questions about their social environment before age 18, including experiences of emotional, physical, or sexual abuse, neglect, and substance abuse in the household. The researchers combined this information with anonymized medical records to build on existing research on how childhood trauma affects health outcomes.
“The study provides insight into how social determinants of health may influence health disorders in adults,” said Robert Reed, MS, a researcher in the Center for Genomic Medicine at DRI and one of the study’s lead authors.
Nearly two-thirds (66%) of participants recalled at least one type of trauma, and almost a quarter (24%) reported experiencing more than four. Women and people of African-American and Latino descent reported a higher prevalence of traumatic experiences than men and those of European descent, but people in low-income households were most affected.
Thirteen mental illnesses showed the most statistically significant associations, including mood disorders, depression, PTSD, anxiety disorders, eating disorders, schizophrenia, and substance abuse. For each reported type of abuse experienced in childhood, a participant’s risk of PTSD increased by 47%. Each cumulative trauma also increased the risk of a suicide attempt by 33%.
The researchers note that although the study is rooted in Nevada — which has a high rate of adults with mental illness and poor access to care — it provides a window into deep-seated public health problems across the nation.
“Combating the prevalence of childhood trauma is a complex issue,” said Karen Schlauch, Ph.D., a bioinformatics researcher at DRI and one of the study’s lead authors. “Personal experiences of neglect and abuse are more challenging to address, but many of the underlying issues can be addressed at the community level, such as food insecurity and poverty.”
In addition to improving our understanding of how early social environments affect our health, Schlauch says the next research goal is to understand how childhood trauma may be linked to specific traits such as impulsivity, a prominent trait in Nevada’s gambling communities.
“To address the devastating impacts of early life adversity on Indigenous health and disparities, we must focus on the dominant social and behavioral mechanisms affecting Nevadans,” said Stephanie Koning, Ph.D., assistant professor in the School of Public of Health at the University of Nevada, Reno and co-author of the study. “In addition to how population needs drive our research, we partner with community-based organizations to promote evidence-based interventions at the individual, community and state levels.”
As the research team expands their analysis of the health impacts of early life adversity, they are exploring how to use the Healthy Nevada Project database to inform community-based interventions. They partnered with community institutional partners—including the Stacey Mathewson Institute for Behavioral Health and Addiction and HOPES of Northern Nevada—on research and advocacy focused on promoting healthy childhood social environments and well-being across the lifespan.
The full text of the study, “Using Phenomenon Association Studies and the SF-12 Quality of Life Index to Identify Profound Effects of Adverse Childhood Experiences on Adult Mental and Physical Health in a Northern Nevada Population,” is available from Frontiers in Psychiatry: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC9583677/
This project was funded by the Stacey Mathewson Institute for Behavioral Health and Addiction, Renown Health, and the Renown Health Foundation. Authors of the study include Karen Schlauch (DRI), Robert Reed (DRI), Stephanie Koning (UNR), Iva Nevo (DRI), and Joseph Grzymski (DRI/Renown Health).
For more information about the Healthy Nevada® Project, please visit: https://healthynv.org/