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.