Study Shows Seniors with Childhood Traumas May Be at Increased Risk for Dementia

Childhood traumas and situations of abuse and neglect have a lasting impact on those children as they go through their entire lives. But the extent of the damage caused by these adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) is longer-lasting and deeper-reaching than most of us realize.

Adverse childhood experiences are defined by as “childhood trauma and adversity, including abuse, neglect, and witnessing violence in the home or community.” ACEs are capable of causing “toxic stress, prolonged or excessive activation of the stress response system.”

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It is this toxic stress that researchers believe may lead to health complications for many victims down the road. Like it or not, and whether we realize it or not, stressful or traumatic events have a lasting impact on our minds and bodies.

For many people, the idea that ACEs could cause health conditions down the road is unbelievable. Yet studies show that they contribute to an increased risk of a variety of common diseases and even mortality.

“Extensive work has been done to understand the science of ACEs and the effects of toxic stress on the development of the brain, as well as the impact on chronic conditions throughout one’s life,” says Dr. Heather B. Schickedanz, MD. “International studies have linked childhood trauma to the risk for dementia and one study showed that a composite measure of ACEs was positively associated with the development of dementia. However, additional research is needed to understand the ACE-dementia relationship.”

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Until now, there had not been much research done on the possible connection between ACEs and Alzheimer’s disease or other types of dementia. But Dr. Schickedanz and her team recently performed a cross-sectional analysis of a large American survey to learn more about the causes of dementia, and they think they’ve discovered a relevant link to ACEs.

The team examined data from four generations of American families. They looked at a variety of health and demographic information and then turned specifically to participants over the age of 65 who had taken an eight-item survey to screen for abnormal cognition. They also took dementia screening information from the 2017 Panel Study of Income Dynamics (PSID) and ACE scores from the 2014 PSID Childhood Retrospective Circumstances Survey supplement.

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The researchers found an association between a higher number of ACEs and an increased probability of a positive dementia screen among the surveyed seniors.

“This link was strongest in adults aged 65-74 and in those with four or more ACEs,” says Dr. Schickedanz. “Older adults with childhood experiences of emotional abuse, sexual abuse, exposure to intimate partner violence, or a parent’s mental illness had the greatest likelihood of a positive screening for dementia.”

The team controlled for chronic conditions, mental illness, and alcohol use and still found that the association was present. They found the strongest associations between high ACE scores and difficulty remembering appointments versus other thinking and memory shifts.

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“Our research supports the growing science of ACEs by demonstrating that, like many chronic diseases linked to ACEs, the risk for dementia may be affected by early-life stress,” Dr. Schickedanz says. “Our findings align with current research and build upon existing evidence tying major drivers of mortality to the life course effect of trauma—in this case, to dementia in later life.”

Little association was found, however, in subjects 75 years of age and older. Dr. Schickedanz believes this may be explained by worse memory problems in this group of people:

“The heightened incidence of dementia in adults older than 75 demonstrates it is possible that the oldest adults in our sample were less likely to reliably recall ACEs. This could explain the weaker association between ACEs and dementia risk in the oldest age group.”

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The researchers believe that adverse childhood experiences may lead individuals to adapt to stress early on, followed by an accelerated decline in neurocognitive function as they age. The team believes pediatricians and other healthcare professionals could help prevent their young patients from getting dementia down the road by identifying ACEs early and providing appropriate therapy opportunities.

Further studies will be necessary to determine whether there are potential benefits to screening older adults for ACEs when performing cognitive assessments.

If you’re unsure whether you or a loved one have experienced adverse childhood events, you can take the quiz here.

The study was published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine.

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