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Exposure to Violence Has Long-term Effects Among Adolescents

Update Date: Jul 03, 2012 04:26 PM EDT

Community violence may have long-term adverse health effects on children.

A new study, done by researchers at Penn State and University College London, claims that children who are exposed to community violence continue to exhibit a physical stress response up to a year after the exposure.

"We know that exposure to violence is linked with aggression, depression, post-traumatic stress symptoms and academic and cognitive difficulties in the short term, but little is known about the long-term effects of such exposure," said Elizabeth Susman, Jean Phillips Shibley Professor of Biobehavioral Health, Penn State. "Our data show that the stress reaction to violence exposure is not just immediate. There's an effect that endures."

Researchers surveyed 124 people between the ages of 8 and 14 who lived in small cities and rural communities. They say their study is the first to not focus on children who live in inner cities and urban communities.

"Our study is unique because we focused on children who live in small towns, so they are not children you would normally expect to be exposed to a lot of violence," said Melissa Peckins, biobehavioral health graduate student, Penn State. "Also, these were healthy children without a history of reported maltreatment."

The participants were given a questionnaire to measure their exposure to violence overall and over the last 12 months. The researchers also gave the participants a stress test and measured that responses through saliva collected before and after the test was given. Based on the test, researchers concluded that there was an increased exposure to violence in boys, but not in girls.

"In enduring stressful conditions, we may have adapted evolutionarily to suppress our cortisol levels because higher and more prolonged levels of cortisol in the bloodstream can lead to negative health consequences, such as autoimmune disorders, lowered immunity, arthritis and atypical depression. This may explain why cortisol reactivity was lower for males," Susman said. "However, there is a theory that females may react to stressful situations by talking about it, which may be their way of reducing the negative effects of cortisol in the bloodstream. If parents and other adults are available to discuss episodes of violence with children, it might help the children, especially females, to reduce their cortisol levels."

In the future, the team hopes to examine the role of duration of exposure to violence and time elapsed after exposure to violence on cortisol reactivity.

The results were published online in a recent issue of the Journal of Adolescent Health.

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