Lead author Judith E. Carroll, a research scientist at the Cousins Center for Psychoneuroimmunology at the University of California, Los Angeles, studied 756 adults who had participated in the study Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults. They measured 18 biological markers of health risk, such as blood pressure, heart rate, stress hormone, cholesterol, waist circumference, inflammation and blood sugar regulation, and added up their risks across these markers to create a summary index called "allostatic load."
Values at the upper range across these markers indicated they were at higher biological risk for disease. Previous research has shown higher levels of allostatic load are associated with greater likelihood of a negative health event such as a heart attack or stroke, or declines in physical or cognitive functioning.
To determine the study subjects' childhood stress the researchers used a well-validated self-report scale called the Risky Families Questionnaire.
The study, published online by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found a significant link between reports of childhood abuse and multisystem health risks, but those who reported higher amounts of parental warmth and affection in their childhood had lower multisystem health risks.
"Our findings highlight the extent to which these early childhood experiences are associated with evidence of increased biological risks across nearly all of the body's major regulatory systems" said senior author Teresa Seeman of the David Geffen School of Medicine and Fielding School of Public Health at UCLA.
"If we only look at individual biological parameters such as blood pressure or cholesterol, we would miss the fact that the early childhood experiences are related to a much broader set of biological risk indicators -- suggesting the range of health risks that may result from such adverse childhood exposures."
The authors noted the findings are based on a cross-sectional analysis and do not prove causation. It used information provided by the participants, so there may be some recall bias. Also, the analysis may not have captured other factors affecting regulatory systems, such as poor nutrition or environmental pollution.