Lead investigator Dr. Renee Boynton-Jarrett, a pediatric primary care physician at Boston Medical Center, and colleagues used data involving 33,000 women in 2005 from the Black Women's Health Study, which has tracked a large number of African-American women since 1995.
The women's early life experiences of abuse were assessed in relation to two measures of obesity -- body mass index and waist circumference greater than 35 inches as a measure of central obesity.
"Abuse during childhood may adversely shape health behaviors and coping strategies, which could lead to greater weight gain in later life," Boynton-Jarrett said in a statement.
She noted that metabolic and hormonal disruptions resulting from abuse could have that effect and childhood abuse could be a marker for other adversities.
"Ultimately, greater understanding of pathways between early life abuse and adult weight status may inform obesity prevention and treatment approaches," Boynton-Jarrett said.
She said further studies are needed to clarify which factors are responsible for the association of abuse with obesity.
The study was published in the journal Pediatrics.
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