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Child Abuse Linked to Higher Odds for Cancer as Adult

TUESDAY, July 24 (HealthDay News) -- Adults who suffered frequent emotional or physical abuse as children are at increased risk for cancer, a new study suggests.

The more frequent and intense the abuse, the greater the risk of cancer, the researchers added. The effect was particularly significant when mothers abused daughters and fathers abused sons, according to researchers from Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind.

The findings come from data on more than 2,100 U.S. adults who took part in the National Survey of Midlife Development. The study was published online in the Journal of Aging and Health.

"People often say that children are resilient and they'll bounce back, but we found that there are events that can have long-term consequences on adult health," Kenneth Ferraro, a professor of sociology and director of Purdue's Center on Aging and the Life Course, said in a university news release.

"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," he added.

The intensity of the social bond between parents and children of the same sex may be one reason why cancer risk is particularly high among sons who were abused by their fathers and daughters who were abused by their mothers, the researchers added.

"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," study co-author Patricia Morton, a sociology and gerontology graduate student, noted in the news release.

"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," she added.

The researchers are currently studying possible links between child abuse and other health problems in adulthood, including heart attacks. This study is observational in nature, so while it shows an association between child abuse and later risk for cancer, it cannot prove cause and effect.

Nevertheless, "these findings reinforce that such [childhood] 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."

More information

The U.S. Department of Health and Humans Services offers advice for preventing child abuse and neglect.

-- Robert Preidt

SOURCE: Purdue University, news release, July 17, 2012

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