Even in old age, adults who reported they had been abused or neglected as children were found to have trouble getting a good night’s sleep, according to the study, published in the Journal of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences in February.
“A negative early attachment continues to exert an influence on our health decades later through an accumulation of stressful interpersonal experiences across our lives,” said Poon, currently an intern at a psychiatric hospital in Virginia.
“The impact of abuse stays in the system. Emotional trauma may limit a person’s ability to fend for themselves and successfully navigate the social world. Our study shows once again how the emotional and biological really interact.”
There is a growing body of research, both longitudinal and retrospective in design, that demonstrates how people’s early life experiences affect their physical and psychological well being, Poon said.
The same survey found that emotional abuse in childhood was also associated with poorer relationships in adulthood. Poon speculates that this lack of support, associated with stress, likely influences sleep quality.
“Of course prevention of child abuse is key to improving people’s long-term health,” Poon said. “But for those complaining of sleep problems, psychotherapy to improve social relationships may also help.”
The national survey, part of the MIDUS data set, asked nearly 3,500 adults in 1995 about their childhood. Ten years later, nearly 900 of them aged 60 and older were asked about sleep, relationships and emotional distress.
“This paper addresses problems in sleeping, a very frequent complaint among older adults, and adds to a growing research literature connecting childhood stressors to late life health issues,” said Knight, a professor in the USC Davis School of Gerontology. “It further suggests how the connection between childhood emotional abuse and sleep occurs, with the effects of abuse acting through influences on social support and emotional distress in adulthood.”
Poon, who is finishing her doctorate degree in clinical psychology, plans to pursue research and clinical work to improve physical and mental health among aging adults and their caregivers.
A class with Caleb Finch and Eileen Crimmins, USC professors who are at the forefront of gerontology research, got Poon to thinking about “the idea of looking at things from a lifespan perspective.”
“They pounded on the idea that early adversity can have lasting effects,” Poon said. “I am very interested in exploring the underlying mechanisms.”
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