Victims of childhood bullying at higher risk of cardiovascular disease in later life

Thirty five years ago, a little girl aged 11 was bullied at school. The other girls ran away from her, which, at first, she thought was a game. In the days and weeks that followed they continued to leave her out of their games & teased her on many occasions. Now aged 47, she is ranked as overweight, closer to obese.

Researchers from King’s College Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience (IoPPN) have found that people who experienced bullying in childhood are more likely to be overweight in their middle age. They have also found they are at risk of inflammatory diseases, such as cardiovascular disease, heart attack and type-2 diabetes.

The findings are based on data from the British National Child Development Study (NCDS), a long term observational study of all children born in England, Scotland and Wales during one week in 1958. Parents were asked about their children’s experience of bullying at ages 7 and 11. Blood samples measuring inflammation and obesity were later obtained when these children reached 45.

Professor Louise Arseneault, from IoPPN at King’s College is the senior author of the report. She defines bullying in three ways. Firstly, the children were of the same age. Secondly, the bullying occurred over a period of time. And thirdly, the nature of the bullying was similar each time, such as being excluded,

“Bullying in childhood gets under the skin causing toxic stress. Our research has already shown a link between childhood bullying and risk of mental health disorders in children, adolescents and adults, but this study is the first to widen the spectrum of adverse outcomes to include cardiovascular disease at mid-life.”

The researchers found that 26% of women who had been occasionally or frequently bullied in childhood were obese at the age of 45, in comparison to 19% of those who had never been bullied.

‘Two ‘well known’ markers were used to indicate obesity – BMI measurement (Body Mass Index) and the waist-hip ratio, a measurement of abdominal fat. Both men and women who suffered childhood bullying showed a greater measure of abdominal fat at aged 45, in comparison to non-bullied participants.

“12% of obesity cases could be prevented by limiting childhood bullying,” said Professor Arseneault.

In the NCDS study, 28% of the childhood participants were bullied occasionally and 15% bullied frequently. Forty five years later the rates of childhood bullying are the same.

The authors also found a link between frequent bullying and a risk of cardiovascular disease in mid-life. They found that 20% of those who had been frequently bullied compared to 16% who had never been bullied had high levels of certain proteins in their blood (C-reactive protein). High levels of this protein indicate a risk of heart disease.

Co-author, Dr Andrea Danese, Consultant Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist, pointed to identifying the risks, “ Taking steps to tackle obesity and high blood inflammation is important because both can lead to serious and potentially life-threatening conditions. The effects of being bullied in childhood on the risk for developing poor health later in life are relatively small compared to other factors. However, because obesity and bullying are quite common these days, tackling these effects may have a real impact. Our research highlights the need to trace the roots of these pathways back to psychosocial experiences in childhood.”

For policy makers, Dr Danese had this recommendation, “ More money is needed to spend time with these children, and teachers and doctors need to acknowledge them. More referrals are necessary to childhood mental health services and these need to be better funded to make a difference.”

Other childhood risk factors were used as a control during the research, such as the social class of the parents, also key adult variables such as smoking, diet and exercise. However, the findings remained significant despite them.

The research was funded by the British Academy and the Royal Society.

 

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