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Bullying can shorten life - study

Published 20/05/2015

Scientists found a significantly increased risk of stress-induced chronic inflammation in middle-aged men and women who had been bullied as children
Scientists found a significantly increased risk of stress-induced chronic inflammation in middle-aged men and women who had been bullied as children

Being bullied at school has effects on the body that last for decades and can shorten a person's life, new research suggests.

Scientists found a significantly increased risk of stress-induced chronic inflammation in middle-aged men and women who had been bullied as children.

This, in turn, is known to increase the chances of having blocked arteries, leading to potentially fatal heart attacks and strokes.

In women, falling victim to childhood bullying was also found to raise the risk of being clinically obese in later life by about 40%.

The findings come from a major study of more than 7,000 Britons born in 1958 whose parents provided information about their children's exposure to bullying at age seven and 11.

Data on blood inflammation markers and obesity were collected when the participants were aged 45.

Professor Louise Arseneault, from the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience at King's College, London, who co-led the study, said: "Our findings show that being bullied in childhood does get under your skin. We should move away from this idea that bullying is part of growing up and acceptable.

"Bullying is a part of growing up for many children from all social groups. While many important school programmes focus on preventing bullying behaviours, 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."

Up to a fifth of children are thought to experience bullying but some cope with it better than others.

Prof Arseneault said the most vulnerable appear to be those carrying the "baggage" of other problems, such as maltreatment at home.

Previous research has linked bullying to an increased risk of depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, poorer education and deficient social life.

The new study, published in the journal Psychological Medicine, points to serious physical as well as psychological effects that can have a major impact on long-term health.

Bullying can take a wide range of forms, from physical abuse such as kicking and hitting, to name-calling and social exclusion.

The researchers took account of a wide range of social and lifestyle factors that might have influenced their results, including IQ, social background, smoking, diet and exercise. After making statistical adjustments to exclude these effects, the findings remained significant.

Among the study participants, 28% were bullied occasionally in childhood and 15% frequently.

A fifth of men and women who had frequently been bullied had raised levels of an inflammation blood marker called C-reactive protein (CRP) compared with 16% of those who had never been bullied.

High CRP levels are associated with narrowing of the arteries, which increases the risk of heart disease and strokes.

Victims of frequent bullying also had raised levels of fibrinogen, a blood protein which promotes clot formation.

Measurements of body mass index (BMI), which relates height and weight, showed that 26% of women who had been occasionally or frequently bullied as children were obese at the age of 45. In comparison, 19% of women who escaped bullying ended up obese.

A different measurement of abdominal fat, hip-waist ratio, showed that both men and women who suffered childhood bullying were thicker around the middle at the age of 45.

Co-author Dr Andrea Danese, from the same King's College team, said there was evidence that eating high-calorie food can dampen the effects of stress.

Chronic inflammation also led to fatigue and reduced activity, which could contribute to weight gain.

The stress of being bullied may trigger persistent hormonal imbalances leading to an unchecked inflammatory response, said Dr Danese.

He added: "The main focus of prevention for age-related disease has traditionally been on unhealthy adult behaviours, such as smoking, physical inactivity and poor diet.

"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."

The researchers said there was an argument for spending more on childhood mental health services and allowing more children to be offered psychiatric treatment.

"We have good programmes in schools for tackling bullying behaviour," said Prof Arseneault. "In addition, we need to devote resources to the young victims and not ignore them."

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