A January 2015 study finds that experiences of childhood neglect may be more detrimental to long-term health than other forms of maltreatment.

When most people think about child abuse, images of household violence and sexual violation are often what comes to mind. Whether this is a product of the media’s portrayal of child abuse, or our own lack of understanding of what constitutes abuse, the fact remains that it is generally inaccurate. Neglect, characterized by the failure of the caregiver/s to provide a child with the conditions that are accepted as being essential for their physical and emotional development and wellbeing, is by far the most prevalent form of child abuse, accounting for 80% of reports of maltreatment within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (2012). It may also be surprising to learn that neglect may be one of the most detrimental forms of abuse to the long-term health of the individual.

In a new study examining data from a longitudinal investigation of high risk youths and published in Developmental Psychobiology (Jan, 2015), a multinational team of researchers have demonstrated a link between clinically relevant reports of childhood neglect and increased levels of Cortisol and the pro-inflammatory cytokine Macrophage Migration Inhibitory Factor (MIF). MIF is an important regulator of the innate immune system that provides immediate defence against infection. Increased levels of these biologically inter-related systems are thought to be damaging to long-term health in a myriad ways, including immunosuppression and inflammatory related chronic illness such as allergies, arthritis, asthma, cancer, Crohn’s, chronic fatigue, cystic fibrosis, diabetes, fibromyalgia, heart disease and stroke, high blood pressure, multiple sclerosis, obesity, depression, anxiety, PTSD, and more.

The study, which included 206 high-risk youth from low-income families, looked at the association of childhood maltreatment using the Childhood Trauma Questionnaire (CTQ), a 28-item self-report questionnaire, and saliva testing for cortisol and MIF. Researchers noted that, “ . . . adolescents who reported histories of severe neglect showed elevated levels of both MIF and cortisol at a baseline laboratory assessment, in comparison to youth without self-reported histories of neglect.” Additionally, the findings show that individuals who experienced in utero drug use were even more likely to show higher levels of MIF.

This study is significant not only because it highlights the extremely damaging effects of childhood neglect over other forms of abuse, it is also the first study to use non-invasive saliva testing for MIF, which the researchers believe may be a useful early health risk detection and prevention method for maltreated children.

View the Abstract here.