Study reveals broader impact of childhood adversity

Childhood adversity linked to adult mental health issues.


Researchers from Karolinska Institutet examined the impact negative childhood experiences can have on an individual’s mental health as they age. They found that people who went through tough times when they were young are more likely to have mental health issues when they grow up. They also found that certain factors, such as living arrangements or genes, may be passed down within families and contribute to some of this risk.

The likelihood of mental health problems in later life is higher for those who had difficult childhoods, according to new research from Karolinska Institutet. This study, which looked at over 25,000 individuals, used twins to understand this connection better. The study found that the more bad experiences someone had in childhood, the higher their risk of mental illness in adulthood.

It also demonstrated how important roles heredity and environment play in this connection. In addition to answering questions regarding abuse or neglect in their families, the twins’ medical records were examined by researchers to look for evidence of mental health problems at a later age.

Hilda Björk Daníelsdóttir is a doctoral student at the University of Iceland. A visiting doctoral student at the Institute of Environmental Medicine at Karolinska Institutet and the study’s first author said, “These are tough questions to answer, but this is the best data source we can access.”

Researchers have found a way to understand why some twins who faced abuse in the same family develop mental health issues while others don’t. They tracked which twin pair eventually developed psychiatric problems after one underwent maltreatment and the other did not. This assisted them in determining the relative risk that stems from the abuse itself, genetics, and environment.

Hilda Björk Daníelsdóttir explains, “Most previous studies on the mental health effects of childhood adversity have not been able to consider these things. Now we can show that the increased risk of mental health problems after adverse childhood experiences can be partly explained by factors shared by family members, such as genetic factors or factors in the childhood environment.”

Hilda Björk Daníelsdóttir thinks this finding should make healthcare prioritize treating the entire family, not just the afflicted child. Experiencing multiple types of childhood adversities increases the risk of future psychiatric issues.

Treating children who are at risk and their families requires an understanding of this. Hilda Björk Daníelsdóttir hopes their study will raise awareness of how childhood experiences can cause psychiatric disorders in adulthood and how to address them effectively.

This study contributes to understanding how difficult childhood experiences impact adult mental health. It shows that our genes and the environment we grow up in play a significant role. This means that when trying to help people who had tough childhoods, we need to think about their whole family, not just the person affected.

Journal reference: 

  1. Hilda Björk Daníelsdóttir, Thor Aspelund, et al., Adverse Childhood Experiences and Adult Mental Health Outcomes. JAMA Psychiatry. DOI: 10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2024.0039.