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Study Reports Bullying Hurts Children’s Future Health

Update Date: May 12, 2014 03:09 PM EDT
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Even if bullying stops after middle or high school, more evidence from recent studies has suggested that the effects of bullying on one's health is long-term. In a new study, researchers at Duke Medicine reported that children who were victims of bullying tended to suffer more from chronic, systemic inflammation that lasts into adulthood. Bullies, on the other hand, benefited socially from their actions.

"Our findings look at the biological consequences of bullying, and by studying a marker of inflammation, provide a potential mechanism for how this social interaction can affect later health functioning," said the study's lead author, William E. Copeland, Ph.D., associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University School of Medicine. "Among victims of bullying, there seems to be some impact on health status in adulthood. In this study, we asked whether childhood bullying can get 'under the skin' to affect physical health."

For this study, the researchers examined data taken from the Great Smoky Mountains Study. The data included 1,420 individuals that were tracked for other 20 years. The research team examined the interviews that were conducted throughout the participants' childhood, adolescence and young adulthood. At the same time, the researchers collected blood samples in order to analyze biological factors that could be at play. The team also measured the levels of C-reactive protein (CRP), which is a marker of low-grade inflammation. Higher levels of CRP could increase one's risk of cardiovascular disease.

"CRP levels are affected by a variety of stressors, including poor nutrition, lack of sleep and infection, but we've found that they are also related to psychosocial factors," Copeland said in the press release. "By controlling for participants' pre-existing CRP levels, even before involvement in bullying, we get a clearer understanding of how bullying could change the trajectory of CRP levels."

The researchers divided the participants into three groups, which were people who were bullied, people who were bullies and people who were both bullied and bullies. CRP levels increased in all three groups during adulthood. However, the levels were the highest for adults who were bullied as children. The team found that CRP levels also increased in people who reported higher incidences of being bullied. People who were bullies had the lowest CRP levels.

"Our study found that a child's role in bullying can serve as either a risk or a protective factor for low-grade inflammation," Copeland said. "Enhanced social status seems to have a biological advantage. However, there are ways children can experience social success aside from bullying others."

The study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 

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