Childhood neglect and abuse can leave mental and physical scars, but a new study suggests there may also be a correlation between abuse and obesity.
Researchers looked at court records of 410 children up to age 11 from 1967 to 1971 in a Midwest county who had court-substantiated cases of physical and sexual abuse and neglect. They were matched with 303 children of similar ages, sex, race and ethnicity and social class who had no abuse or neglect. On a follow-up of both groups about 30 years later, their body mass index scores were compared.
Among whites, those who were abused and neglected overall and those who were physically abused had significantly higher BMI scores as adults than the control group. Childhood physical abuse predicted higher adult BMI scores even when controlling for demographics, smoking and drinking alcohol. However, childhood sexual abuse or neglect was not predictive of having a higher BMI as an adult.
While this doesn't prove a causative effect, the study authors propose two theories why BMI scores could be higher among these groups: The physical abuse could have affected the activation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, in turn increasing peripheral cortisol, which has been associated with abdominal obesity. That axis is a part of the neuroendocrine system and controls functions such as calorie burning and reactions to stress. Also, overeating could be a way of coping with the trauma of abuse.
The study appears in the October issue of the journal Obesity.