Experiencing Trauma In Childhood Linked To Increased Risk Of Developing Dementia

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Experiencing trauma, abuse or neglect in childhood may lead to health complications later on, including a higher risk of developing dementia, new research finds.

Researchers in Japan published a study this week that examined the connection between adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs, and dementia risk. The team found that the more ACEs someone experiences early in life, the higher their chance of developing dementia in older age.

ACEs can encompass different types of trauma or adversity in childhood, including things like emotional neglect, physical or sexual abuse, domestic violence, racism or housing instability. The more ACEs someone accumulates, the more likely they are to develop chronic diseases later on—such as heart disease, diabetes or depression, according to Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child.

But the link between ACEs and dementia hasn’t been fully examined, and this paper is a good start, says Dr. Sarah Bauermeister, a cognitive neuropsychologist and senior Data Manager at Dementias Platform UK.

“There are very few papers out there at the moment which actually have investigated the link between early childhood adversity and late life outcome, specifically dementia,” Bauermeister, who was not involved in the study, said.

“We are always wanting to find predictors and biomarkers [for dementia],” Bauermeister continued. “In this study, we’re seeing that what is happening in early life is affecting what’s happening later in life. I think that’s really important.”

Neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s currently affect some five million people in the U.S., and that number is expected to swell to 16 million in the coming decades.

Yukako Tani is an assistant professor in the Department of Global Health Promotion at Tokyo Medical and Dental University, and an author of the new study. She said the motivation for the research partially stemmed from an interest in investigating the effects of living through World War II in the older generation in Japan. Her team wanted to find out whether that trauma could have an effect on cognition in older age.

The researchers examined over 17,000 older Japanese adults born before 1948, in a large cohort study. They focused on seven adverse childhood experiences: parental death, parental divorce, parental mental illness, family violence, physical abuse, neglect and psychological abuse.

After adjusting for several other factors, such as age, childhood economic hardship and education, the researchers still found an association between ACEs and dementia. Participants who had experienced three or more ACEs had a higher risk of developing dementia compared to those who reported no ACEs.

The main takeaway of the study: “Dementia risk begins in childhood,” Tani said.

There are a few theories as to why ACEs may trigger neurodegeneration, Bauermeister says. The first is that impaired mental health as a result of early childhood adversity could lead to mental illness down the road, which is associated with an increased risk of dementia.

The other possibility is that stress induced by ACEs may actually have a physical impact on the brain. “Experiencing these early adverse experiences over time may have an effect on the brain’s cortical structure,” Bauermeister said, and this is something researchers are currently investigating.

Alisa Lincoln, Director of the Institute for Health Equity and Social Justice Research at Northeastern University in Boston, hopes the evidence is enough to spur health care practitioners to acknowledge the longitudinal effects of ACEs—and to put more support and interventions in place to both prevent and treat them.

“I think this is evidence that early prevention work with kids could have a huge impact across the life course,” Lincoln said. “From a population health perspective, reducing ACEs through early intervention would pay off in enormous magnitude.”

As for the next steps, Tani says the research team hopes to examine this link further in Japan’s younger generation.

“Our next step is to confirm if the next generation of Japanese people who have not experienced war can reproduce the link between ACEs and dementia, and to explore the [underlying] mechanisms,” Tani said.

Dr. Sarah Bauermeister, meanwhile, hopes that this research spurs more awareness—and potential change in policy down the road.

“Perhaps there are policy makers out there and people working in this field who can use research like this as power—the power to change,” Bauermeister said. “That’s all we can hope for, that we use our work and our research for change.”

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