Surviving Beyond Statistics: Women who suffered childhood abuse at a higher risk for early death

It’s long been known that adverse childhood experiences are a main cause of health issues later in life but statistics can’t calculate the power of the human spirit.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, children who have been subject to physical, emotional, and sexual abuse along with household challenges such as domestic violence, substance abuse, mental illness, parental divorce/separation, or someone who was incarcerated, are more likely to engage in risky behavior, have chronic health problems, not have the success one would expect, and could suffer from an early death.

In an additional study, researchers have concluded that women who suffered abuse as a child “remain vulnerable to premature mortality into adulthood. Thus, reported childhood abuse may have long-term ramifications for health and longevity in women.”

While child abuse studies have been done in prior years, this is thought to be the first of its kind to measure mortality rates of adults who suffered child abuse.

The results researchers found after reviewing data collected over 20 years were shocking:

“Women who reported childhood emotional abuse were 22 percent more likely to die during the follow-up period than women who didn’t report abuse. If they reported moderate physical abuse, they were 30 percent more likely to die. For severe physical abuse, the increased risk was 58 percent. The more types of abuse reported, the greater the risk of death during those 20 years,” according to National Public Radio.

What is interesting is that the study was based on self-reported abuse – not court verified cases. The author of the study told NPR, “that some adults may recall their childhoods as more difficult than they would have been characterized by an outside observer, and this tendency itself may be associated with greater health risks.”

This could infer that the harshness of the abuse suffered is not the focal point but the impact it has on someone is. For example, individual ‘A’ could suffer years of abuse but only rate it as a ‘five’ while individual ‘B’ could be abused once and describe it as the worst occurrence ever and be scarred for life.

Now if you’re wondering, why only women were affected, the authors had a theory:

“It is unclear why women might be more vulnerable to the effects of abuse than men. One biological explanation could be that characteristics that are differentially prevalent in women vs men (eg, excessive release of steroid hormones in response to stress 21) and that are also linked to health outcomes may help explain sex differences in abuse-mortality relationships. Psychologically, it may also be that men and women have different coping strategies for dealing with adversities such as abuse and that men’s, on average, may be more protective for their long-term health.”

The Childhelp Impact

At Childhelp, our K-12 child abuse prevention and education curriculum Childhelp Speak Up Be Safe which equips students nationwide with skills they need to play a significant role in the prevention or interruption of abuse and bullying. We also have the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline (1-800-4-A-CHILD) which offers children and adults crisis intervention, information, literature and referrals to emergency, social services, and support resources. In all, these two life-saving services have helped nearly 1.3M individuals and counting.

This study, like many before it, continues to motivate us to fight each and every day to educate parents, communities, and schools on how to prevent child abuse and protect those most vulnerable among us.

Childhelp incorporates the latest studies into our work. Still, it is critical to remember that increased risk factors do not determine any woman’s future. Through therapy and a strong support network, we have seen survivors reclaim their lives and thrive. An abusive past adds many extra hurdles to a woman’s life but no woman should ever label herself a statistic. Survivors of abuse have already made it through their worst days and deserve to look forward to limitless possibilities for growth and healing.


Their findings were published in JAMA Psychiatry. To view the tables generated by the study, click here.