30.12.2020

Child maltreatment: Overview of associations with developmental trajectories and long-term outcomes

Childhood maltreatment types (neglect and psychological, physical or sexual abuse) are associated with many poor outcomes in adulthood. Yet, research mainly focuses on the cumulative adversity burden rather than specificities and commonalities of associations with adult outcomes and intervening pathways. This overview, therefore, summarises evidence from several research studies using the 1958 British Birth Cohort on specific maltreatment types, child development trajectories, adult intermediaries and outcomes.

About one in five participants were identified as neglected or abused in childhood. Neglect was associated with key dimensions of development: slower height growth, delayed maturation, faster BMI gain, and poorer emotional and cognitive development. Associated adulthood outcomes included harmful behaviours (notably smoking), poorer physical health (shorter height, excess BMI, poorer blood lipids and glucose, poor-rated health and physical functioning), worse mental health, lower socio-economic circumstances (e.g. poorer living conditions) and elevated mortality in mid-adulthood.

Childhood abuse associations were less widespread and were often only for specific types: most were unrelated to childhood height and cognitive abilities, but all were associated with poorer child emotional development, adult mental health, smoking, blood lipids and self-rated health.

Additionally, physical abuse was associated with faster BMI gain, higher adult BMI, blood glucose, inflammation and mortality in mid-adulthood; sexual abuse with faster BMI gain, higher adult BMI, poor physical functioning at 50y and higher mortality in mid-adulthood. Adult health measures associated with child maltreatment are key predictors of serious disease, disability and death. Therefore, child maltreatment associations with these measures represent an important burden for individuals and society.

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