Frequent abuse by a parent can increase a child's cancer risk in adulthood, and the effects are especially significant when mothers abuse their daughters and fathers abuse their sons, according to new research from Purdue University.
Kenneth Ferraro, professor of sociology and director of Purdue's Center on Aging and the Life Course, and sociology and gerontology graduate student Patricia Morton conducted the study, which was funded by the National Institute on Aging and is published online by the Journal of Aging and Health.
The study's findings were based on survey data from 2,101 adults and abuse was one of many childhood misfortunes, including poverty, loss of parent and family educational status, that researchers examined to determine if there was a link to cancer in adulthood.
Participants were not directly asked if they were abused, but abuse was defined by survey answers to questions such as how frequently a parent, sibling or other person insulted or swore at them as a child; refused to talk them; threatened to hit them; pushed, grabbed or shoved; threw something at them; kicked, bit or hit them with a fist; choked them; or burned or scalded them.
The frequency of these abuses also was identified.
"People often say that children are resilient and they'll bounce back, but we found that there are events that can have long-term consequences on adult health," Ferraro said. "In this case, people who were frequently emotionally or physically abused by their parents were more likely to have cancer in adulthood. Overall, the more frequent and intense the abuse, the more it elevated the cancer risk."
Researchers also noted that boys who were abused by their fathers and girls who were abused with their mothers had higher cancer risks, possibly because of the greater social bond between same-sex children and parents.
"Other studies have shown that if a mother smokes, the daughter is more likely to smoke, and the same relationship is found when sons mirror their father's behavior," Morton said. "More research is needed, but another possibility is that men may be more likely to physically abuse their sons, and mothers are more likely to physically abuse their daughters."
The study's authors said they would like to see child abuse noted as an environmental factor that can increase cancer occurrence in adulthood, along with more research in an effort to help improve interventions for abused children.
They're now examining potential links between child abuse and other health issues, including heart attacks and specific types of cancer.
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