Childhood Abuse Linked To Asthma And Obesity In African American Women

Screenshot_2013-03-22-01-52-10-1According to research done at the University School of Medicine and Boston University’s Slone Epidemiology Center, Black women who have been physically and/or sexually abused during childhood and adolescence are more likely to become obese in adulthood as well as are more likely to later go on to develop asthma.

The study appeared in the journal Pediatrics and was based on a longitudinal Black Women’s Health Study which followed a large number of African American women since 1995.

What the study suggests is what many of us already know and that is that experiences during childhood may have long-term affects on our emotional and physical health.

“Abuse during childhood may adversely shape health behaviors and coping strategies, which could lead to greater weight gain in later life,”  says Renee Boynton-Jarrett, MD, who is the lead investigator in the study as well as a pediatric primary care physician at Boston Medical Center.

She goes on to say that metabolic and hormonal disruptions can result from abuse and that childhood abuse could cause other health problems like asthma. “Ultimately, greater understanding of pathways between early life abuse and adult weight status may inform obesity prevention and treatment approaches.” Boynton-Jarrett continued.

The same study found that physical and/or sexual abuse could more than double the chances of African American women developing asthma later in life. According to the study, African American women who suffered abuse in childhood had an increase of about 20 percent of developing asthma.

What’s also interesting is that the link between physical abuse and asthma seems to be stronger than the link between sexual abuse and asthma.

According to Patricia Coogan, the lead author in the study stated,  “The results suggests that chronic stress contributed to asthma onset , even years later.”
I had a professor in graduate school who always said, “Whatever you don’t deal with mentally, you will deal with physically” and this seems to be a prime example.

Stress in childhood experienced from abuse causes physiological consequences. Imagine the amount of stress one experiences living in an abusive situation. That type of stress can have an impact on the body, especially the immune and respiratory system and development.

There are unfortunately high incidents of childhood abuse as well as an increase in the prevalence of asthma with an increase from 7.3 to 8.2 percent, or approximately from 20.3 million to 25.6 million people from 2001 to 2009. The populations that saw the greatest increase in asthma were children from low-income families and African-American children.

I find this study to be very interesting because as a counselor, before I ever read this study, I recognized a link between obesity and sexual abuse in African American teenage girls.

I noticed that a large portion of the obese African American teenage girls I worked with, reported being sexually abused in childhood and early adolescence. I found this to be astounding and the more obese African American teens I worked with, the more it continued to be true.

It got to a point where I could look at an obese African American teen, the way they carry themselves and predict with about a ninety percent  certainty that they had been sexually abused before they ever felt comfortable enough to divulge that information.

I started thinking that maybe obesity and overeating became a unconscious defense  mechanism they used to become less attractive to not only the person who had sexually abused them, but possibly potential abusers in the future. And of course, overeating in itself could have been a coping mechanism used to help self-sooth themselves from the pain of sexual abuse.

I found it fascinating and yet sad, but this new research appears to back up some of what I had been suspecting although they seem to take it from more of a physiological than psychological approach.

What’s also interesting is that in her book Young, Poor and Pregnant, Judith Musick saw a link between sexual abuse and teenage pregnancy, meaning that some young girls who were being sexually abused, consciously or unconsciously sought out to get pregnant in hopes that their pregnancy and having a baby would make them less appealing to their abuser.

It’s obvious that physical and sexual abuse in childhood can have devastating affects on a child’s mental and emotional health well into adulthood, but new research is pointing to physical and sexual abuse also having long lasting physiological affects, making it that much more important that we not only fight to put a end of child abuse, but that we also provide help to those who have been abused.

Many adults I’ve spoken to who have been abused as children think of themselves as being resilient, and to a certain degree they are, but they don’t see the potential ongoing damage the abuse they experienced ten, twenty, or thirty years ago still has on their lives today. They don’t see that their relationship problems stem from lack of trusting or being able to relate well to men, that their depression comes from years of childhood neglect or that their overeating could be a result of past sexual abuse.

So much so that many of them don’t even initially mention being abused early on, although it is one of the first questions I ask. They go on for session after session, week after week, talking about issues that have roots in their childhood abuse, but they don’t recognize that and it’s only when they bring up the abuse and we address it, that they can truly start to heal.

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