Report: Sexually Abused Girls Suffer Effects for Decades

Girls who are sexually abused as children may suffer behavioral, physical, and emotional problems decades after the abuse takes place, a new study has found.  The study, published in the current issue of the journal Development and Psychopathology, found higher rates of obesity, depression, cognitive and mental problems, and sleep disturbance among women in their 30s who had been the victims of incest between ages 2 and 16.  The study tracked the girls for 23 years through therapy sessions and blood tests to check hormone levels.

MSNBC reports on the findings:

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.”

During the last assessment, when study participants were in their 20s, their cortisol levels remained lower than the control group, on average. “That tells us their stress response system is burned out,” says Putman, which could explain why some are doing so poorly in life.”

The study’s lead author, Penelope Trickett, a professor of Social Work at the University of Southern California, told MSNBC that although the findings are striking, they do not mean that all victims of childhood abuse are destined to struggle throughout their whole lives.

“These women are more likely to have problems in mental health and physical health than those who haven’t been abused,” she said. “But it really varies to what degree they are disabled by these challenges. Some are managing their lives pretty well, considering what they went through.”

The researchers hope the study might be used to develop more comprehensive treatment programs that promote early intervention and well-rounded support.

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  1. by Dee

    On November 12, 2011 at 7:51 pm

    Cortisal? For real? Maybe it’s just the fact that the child once trusted the person sexually abusing them, and in the years where trust is built in a child, it is wiped out of the whole program! When betrayal stops the emotional trust from taking place, it is most often replaced with loneliness, fear, hate and a feeling of worthlessness, especially were a parent is involved.
    Sure there are probably chemical changes, but the” real mental toll” is much worse.
    And it never goes away completely, no matter how much you try to put it behind you. This is a crime that does not get enough attention, even though it destroys a child and later adults life forever. It should be punished in a way that affects the perpetrator for the rest of their life, yet often barely gets a slap to the wrist if even that. Society should be ashamed of how they don’t protect children of this abuse.

  2. by Applepiebetty

    On November 12, 2011 at 8:12 pm

    My daughter in law was rapped for years by her cousin. No one but her older brother knew case she was too afraid to tell anyone. She thinks she is handling it and has it behind her now that she has been through therapy, married for 19 years and has three teenagers. But when something comes up “like this article could” she becomes quiet, moody, argumentative and seeks to be alone.
    I don’t care who you are. If you have been sexually abused you are not ever over it. It’s too much to except. I was sexually abused by my stepfather. Now at 60 I have many aliments and am overweight. I find being overweight makes me feel safe from predators or not. My husband of 32 years didn’t know, and left me for our close friend. I take prescribed antidepressants and they help, but it is a struggle every day. No one knew till 10 years ago but my mother who knew at the time, did nothing. My trust issues run deep and I find I like being by myself now (and my little Yorkie), because I am safe with just me.