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Study: Children Abused by Parents Face Increased Cancer Risk

Update Date: Jul 17, 2012 01:29 PM EDT

According to a Perdue University study, frequent abuse by a parent can increase a child's cancer risk in adulthood, and the effects are especially significant when mothers abuse their daughters and fathers abuse their sons.

Director of Purdue's Center on Aging Kenneth Ferraro said the researchers found that there are events that can have long term effects on health.

"In this case, people who were frequently emotionally or physically abused by their parents were more likely to have cancer in adulthood, and the link was greater when fathers abused sons and mothers abused daughters," Ferraro said. "Overall, the more frequent and intense the abuse, the more it elevated the cancer risk."

Researchers evaluated survey data from 2,101 adults in the United States. Information about abuse, poverty, loss of parent and family educational status was examined to determine a link to adulthood cancer.

Researchers found that men who experienced the most cumulative stressors during childhood were more likely to have cancer than women. This finding has led researchers to believe that men and women may have different responses to childhood stressors. They also found that when children were abused by their same-sex parent, it increased their cancer risk.

Researcher Patricia Morton said the child-parent relationship is very mirroring.

"Other studies have shown that if a mother smokes, the daughter is more likely to smoke, and the same relationship is found when sons mirror their father's behavior," Morton said. "More research is needed, but another possibility is that men may be more likely to physically abuse their sons, and mothers are more likely to physically abuse their daughters."

Researchers say they are now examining potential links between child abuse and other health outcomes, including heart attacks and types of cancer.

"The connection between negative childhood events and mental health is accepted, and these findings reinforce that such events can also have a long-lasting effect on a person's physical health," Morton said. "It's shocking just how much the damage sticks, and it is a reminder that childhood, which is defined by rapidly changing biological systems, is a sensitive period of development."

However, researchers have admitted that the study is under representative.

"It also is likely that the effect between child abuse and cancer is underrepresented in our study, because people who suffered abuse and were then incarcerated, placed in a mental institution or died were not included in this survey of adults," Ferraro said. "These groups may represent people with more acute and severe effects from abuse, and even though they are omitted, we still find a link. We would like to see child abuse noted as an environmental factor that can increase cancer occurrence in adulthood. More research on this topic also could help mediate the effects or improve interventions to help abused children."

The research was funded by the National Institute on Aging and is published online by the Journal of Aging and Health.

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