ACEs for mothers can impact children’s mental and physical health, study finds
Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) in mothers can impact the mental and physical health of their children, new research from the Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin has found.
ACEs are traumatic events that occur before a child reaches the age of 18. ACEs include all types of abuse and neglect, such as parental substance use, incarceration, and domestic violence. ACEs can also include situations that may cause trauma for a child, such as having a parent with a mental illness or being part of a family going through a divorce.
The findings, published in the journal The Lancet Public Health show that maltreatment during a mother’s childhood is associated with a higher risk of health problems such as asthma, autism, and depression in the next generation. Early intervention to support affected mothers might help to counter this effect, researchers argue.
Maltreatment can have physical, mental, behavioral, and social ramifications that can continue through pregnancy and parenthood. As a result, adverse experiences during the parents’ childhood can affect their own children’s development and health.
In the newly published study, a team of researchers headed by Dr Claudia Buss, a professor at the Institute of Medical Psychology at Charité, shows that health problems are more common in children of mothers who experienced maltreatment themselves as children.
They analysed data on more than 4,300 American mothers and their children from 21 long-term cohorts. Mothers reported on their childhood experiences and provided information on health diagnoses in their biological children up to the age of 18, or this information was collected during visits conducted as part of the study. This valuable trove of data extending across two generations of the same family allowed researchers to identify meaningful connections.
They found that children of mothers who reported adverse experiences were at higher risk of asthma, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and autism. These children also had a higher incidence of symptoms and behaviors associated with depression and anxiety disorders, which are known as ‘internalising’ disorders.
Daughters of mothers in this group are also at higher risk of obesity than their sons. “All of these connections are independent of whether the mother has the same diagnosis,” lead author Dr Buss explained. “That suggests that the risk of that particular health problem is not being transmitted genetically.”
Researchers have yet to fully understand the exact mechanisms that transfer risk from one generation to another. There are indications that adverse childhood experiences could affect maternal biology during pregnancy, as for example stress hormones.
This can affect fetal development in a way that the offspring become more vulnerable for impaired health. There is evidence that biological changes like these are more pronounced in mothers who have developed mental health problems, such as depression, as a consequence of their traumatic experiences. If the mother’s mental health is affected by her childhood experiences, this may also impact on how she interacts with her child once it is born, which is likely to be just as important a factor in these multigenerational effects.
“To our knowledge, this is the first study to examine multiple health problems at once in relation to early trauma in mothers in a large, socio-demographically and ethnically diverse sample. That has been done primarily for individual diseases in the past,” first author Dr Nora Moog explained.
Dr Buss added that the findings do not mean that all children of mothers with ACEs will automatically end up with health problems.
“The risk is elevated, but it doesn’t necessarily lead to a specific health problem,” she said.
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