Being bullied as a child has effects on the body that last for decades and can even shorten a person’s life, according to new research published in the journal Psychological Medicine.
The study, conducted by researchers at King’s College London, found a significantly increased risk of obesity and stress-induced chronic inflammation in middle-aged men and women who had been bullied as children. This, in turn, is known to increase the risk of having blocked arteries, leading to potentially fatal heart attacks and strokes.
“Our research has already shown a link between childhood bullying and risk of mental health disorders in children, adolescents and adults, but this study is the first to widen the spectrum of adverse outcomes to include risks for cardiovascular disease at mid-life,” said senior study author Dr. Louise Arseneault, a professor from the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience at King’s College London.
“Evidently, being bullied in childhood does get under your skin,” she said.
Arseneault and her colleagues analyzed data from more than 7,100 people in a long-term study of all children born in England, Scotland and Wales during one week in 1958. Their parents provided information on whether the participants were bullied at ages 7 and 11.
By age 45, more than one-quarter of women who were occasionally or frequently bullied during childhood were obese, compared to 19 percent of those who never experienced bullying, the study found. Both men and women who were bullied during childhood were more likely to be overweight. Compared to those who weren’t bullied, men and women who were bullied also had higher levels of blood inflammation, putting them at increased risk for heart attack and age-related diseases such as type 2 diabetes, according to the researchers.
“Bullied children show increases in risk factors for age-related disease in middle adulthood, independent of co-occurring childhood and adult risks,” the researchers concluded. “Given the high prevalence of bullying victimization in childhood, tackling this form of psychosocial stress early in life has the potential of reducing risk for age-related disease and its associated burden.”
Current estimates indicate that bullying affects nearly one in three American schoolchildren in grades six through ten, and more than 60 percent of teenagers say they witness bullying in school on a daily basis.
Previous research has established a link between bullying victimization in childhood and poorer physical and psychological health later in life, including increased risk of depression, anxiety disorders and suicidal thoughts, as well as lower cognitive functioning and a lower quality of life. Childhood bullying can also have a negative impact on educational attainment, employment and earnings, and social relationships into adulthood.
“Bullying is a part of growing up for many children from all social groups,” Arseneault said. “While many important school programs focus on preventing bullying behaviors, we tend to neglect the victims and their suffering. Our study implies that early interventions in support of the bullied children could not only limit psychological distress but also reduce physical health problems in adulthood.”
Bullying is not often thought of as a risk factor for chronic conditions like cardiovascular disease and diabetes, said study co-author Dr. Andrea Danese, but these findings suggest it should be.
“The main focus of prevention for age-related disease has traditionally been on unhealthy adult behaviors, such as smoking, physical inactivity, and poor diet,” Danese said. “These are clearly important but our research highlights the need to trace the roots of these lifelong risk trajectories back to psychosocial experiences in childhood.”