Higher levels of childhood physical or sexual abuse are associated with an increased risk for obesity among adult African American women, researchers said.
It was the first study to look at a large group of African American women for this association, which has been found among women in previous studies, the researchers from Boston University said in the August issue of the journal Pediatrics.
The association was “modest, statistically significant” for women who reported severe abuse early in life. And the researchers note that caregivers could take this into account when working with children to prevent obesity.
The researchers used the Black Women’s Health Study, an ongoing study begun in 1985. In 2005, 33,298 women responded to questions about childhood physical or sexual abuse. Nearly 58% of the women reported at least one instance of abuse as a child or teen, and 11% reported severe physical or sexual abuse.
“Severe abuse was positively associated with depressive symptoms, smoking, body weight and inversely associated with being married and household income,” the researchers wrote.
Other behaviors, reproductive history and mental health explained adult obesity to some extent, the researchers said. And mechanisms linking childhood adversity with adult health are poorly understood, they said.
They suggest several plausible ways abuse and later obesity may be linked, including some that seem like common sense such as emotional eating to cope with the abuse rather than to fuel the body.
Obesity is a leading cause of preventable death; the study considered participants obese if they had a BMI – or body mass index, which is based on a height-weight ratio – of 30, and to have “central” obesity if they had a waist that measured more than 35 inches.
The women were ages 21 to 69, from all parts of the United States; they are asked every other year about their status for the Black Women’s Health Study.