These 12 Traumatic Events Shorten Kids’ Lives

From parental death to economic worries, parent substance use to divorce, a new study finds that childhood adversity is associated with some 439,072 deaths each year.

by Ethan Freedman

Poverty, abuse, or deaths in the family can haunt a kid throughout their lives. Besides economic and psychological hardships, a new study shows these incidence can cause with long-term health issues and shorter lives — if families don’t provide the resources kids need.

For this meta study, published this month in JAMA Pediatrics, researchers reviewed a combination of studies looking for associations between “childhood adversity” and health issues like heart disease, smoking and suicide and childhood issues like parental death, abuse, violence and poverty. The researchers defined adversity in 12 broad categories: “parental death, parental divorce, other parent loss, parent psychopathology, parent substance use, parent criminal behavior, family violence, physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, neglect, and economic adversity.” They then tested how exposure to an increasing number of these adversities affected the odds that someone would have a health condition, and how many people in the U.S. can attribute that condition to childhood adversity.

Overall, they estimated that 439,072 annual deaths in the United States were associated with some level of childhood adversity, including over 219,000 heart disease deaths and 82,000 cancer deaths. In addition, millions of people with diseases or unhealthy behaviors were associated with childhood difficulties — from over 10 million smokers to over 22 million cases of sexually transmitted infections.

While study showed how that multiple difficult situations often correlated with an increased risk of issues later in life, the results didn’t parse out which adversities were more connected with various outcomes — comparing death in the family to economic issues, for example.

Still, it did find a relationship between difficulties faced during childhood and health issues later in life, many that could be prevented by offering families resources such as “affordable childcare, paid parental leave, and universal basic income.” The authors note that programs that support families’ economic, medical and social well-being can change situations for many kids.

These data aren’t causative, just correlated, notes MedPageToday. This means you can’t use these results to say that poverty and neglect causes heart disease or cancer, for example, just that children who experienced hardships were more likely to have an increased risk of such diseases. “Unmeasured third variables” could also play a factor in this relationship, the authors say.

In addition, these findings are far from prescriptive — many children who face difficulties will grow into healthy adults, and many children with easier childhoods will face difficulties on their own. People, both children and adults alike, can be very resilient, and learn to become more resilient over the course of their lives.

Still, these findings only add to the understanding that by supporting families — lifting people out of poverty, ensuring access to medical care and creating supportive, safe communities — we create lasting benefits for the future.