Effects of sexual abuse last for decades, study finds
Levels of so-called stress hormone are altered for years, sometimes causing physical and mental problems, researchers find
By Joan Raymond msnbc.com contributor
Young girls who are the victims of sexual abuse experience physical, biological and behavioral problems that can persist for decades after, a new study shows.
Researchers, who tracked a group of girls ranging in age from 6 to 16 at the start of the study in 1987 for the next 23 years, found that they had higher rates of depression and obesity, as well as problems with regulation of brain chemicals, among other issues, compared to a control group of girls who were not abused.
The study, published in the Cambridge University Press journal Development and Psychopathology, was conducted by researchers from the University of Southern California and the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center. Those in the study were assessed by researchers six times at varying ages and developmental stages. Researchers hope to continue the study looking at the women, who are now in their 30s, as well as their children.
The racially-diverse group of 80 girls, who lived in the Washington, D.C., area, were victims of incest, broadly defined as suffering sexual abuse by a male living within the home. On average, the girls were abused for about two years prior to the abuse coming to the attention of child protective services. Some girls were abused when they were as young as age 2.
Compared to a non-abused control group, the researchers found the study participants, all of whom were provided three therapy sessions on average in group and individual settings, suffered severe effects during different stages of their lives, which affected their sexual and cognitive development, mental and physical health, as well as their brain chemical profile. Study participants were more likely to be sexually active at younger ages, have lower educational status, and have more mental health problems.
As children, they had higher levels of cortisol, the so-called "stress hormone," which is released in high levels during the body’s "fight or flight" response. But by about age 15, testing showed that cortisol levels were below normal, compared to the control group. Lower levels of cortisol have been linked to a decrease in the body’s ability to deal with stress, as well as problems with depression and obesity. Lower levels of the hormone have also been linked to post-traumatic stress disorder.
“The cortisol levels (of some study participants) wound up looking like Vietnam vets,” says study co-author Dr. Frank Putnam, professor of pediatrics and psychiatry at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center. “That tells us they are in a chronic state of stress, and never feel safe.”
....The long-term effects of the abuse “were absolutely profound,” says lead author and child psychologist Penelope Trickett, USC professor of Social Work. “It’s just not mental health issues. Some of these women are suffering from a lot of problems today like sleep issues, poor health utilization, and have a lot of risky behaviors. It’s very disturbing.”