Obesity Linked To Childhood Abuse Among Black Women, Says Study

Black women who experienced abuse during their childhood and teenage years are more likely to suffer from obesity as adults, says a new study published in the August 2012 issue of the journal Pediatrics.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, obesity is defined as having a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or higher or having a waist that is significantly larger than the hips. Being obese puts an individual at an increased risk for myriad health problems including heart disease, diabetes, and stroke. Obesity is the second leading cause of preventable death in the United States.

Although childhood abuse has been linked to an increased risk for obesity in previous studies, few studies have been conducted regarding the impact of severity of abuse during childhood on the risk for obesity during adulthood.

In the present study on obesity and childhood abuse, researchers at the Boston University School of Medicine focused on the association between physical and sexual abuse during childhood and adolescence with risk of adult obesity among black women in the United States.

A total of 33,298 black women participated in the study. All of the participants were enrolled in the Black Women’s Health Study, which is an ongoing prospective cohort study that began in 1995. In 2005 for the present study, the women completed a self-administered questionnaire about early life experiences of abuse.

Nearly 58 percent of the women reported at least 1 instance of abuse during their childhood or teenage years. The abuse ranged from mild physical abuse (18 percent) to moderate physical and/or sexual abuse (27 percent) to severe physical or sexual abuse (11 percent) to severe physical and sexual abuse (2 percent). Women who reported suffering from severe abuse were more likely to suffer from depression and to smoke.

Furthermore, severe abuse was positively associated with body weight. Women who were abused as children and teenagers were more likely to suffer from obesity as adults. Additionally, the risk for obesity increases with the severity of the abuse during childhood. In other words, the more severe the abuse was, the more likely a woman is to be obese.

Even after controlling for compounding factors including reproductive history, diet, physical activity, depressive symptoms, and socioeconomic status, the researchers discovered a positive association between childhood abuse and obesity.

As the researchers commented:

“Our findings are consistent with previous research that has investigated the association between early life abuse and obesity risk in adulthood and are the first such findings in a large group of US black women.”

The results of this study are important for the treatment of obesity among women who experienced physical and/or sexual abuse during childhood and adolescence. Treatment will need to include addressing the past trauma as opposed to just treating the current obesity.

As the researchers conclude:

“Our findings suggest that efforts to prevent child abuse have implications for current and future health. Moreover, for survivors of abuse, behavioral patterns associated with cardiovascular risk may emerge in childhood and require tailored interventions that address trauma history in addition to modification of health behaviors.”

Although the researchers speculate that lifestyle is a large factor causing the link between obesity and childhood abuse, further research needs to be conducted to investigate alternative mechanisms through which early life exposures influence adult obesity.

Are you surprised by the results of this study linking childhood abuse and obesity?