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New study links childhood trauma to obesity in developmental disability patients

A new study has found that young people with developmental disorders are more likely to be obese if they have experienced traumatic events during childhood.

The research, led by St Andrew's consultant psychologist Deborah Morris, concluded that childhood trauma can have both psychological and physical effects, and that this must be addressed when designing care for people with developmental disabilities.  

The research paper, entitled “Adverse Childhood Experiences and their relationship to BMI in a developmental disorder adolescent population” studied 41 young people detained in a mental health facility, most commonly for aggressive behaviour. Of the population, 88 per cent had been exposed to at least one Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE), with 58 per cent reporting four or more and 38% experiencing six or more. Typical ACEs include physical and emotional abuse, parental neglect, violence, parental substance abuse or being exposed to criminal behaviour.

Of those assessed in the study there was a strong link between trauma and BMI. Specifically, the amount of trauma experienced increased the risk of being obese in childhood. However, importantly the study found that there was not a relationship between the length of admission to services and BMI, meaning that the length of time being in hospital was not associated with obesity.

Deborah Morris explained:

“The traumatic events that these children experience have a profound and enduring impact. While many studies have found links between obesity and traumatic experiences, this is the first time that research has focused on what trauma means for people with developmental disabilities. Very clearly, the more a person is exposed to childhood adversity, the more likely they are to have an unhealthy BMI.

“Young people with developmental disabilities are already more likely to be overweight or obese than the general population, and our research confirms that ACEs intensify this effect.  Obesity can also has a significant impact on wider health needs both in childhood and adulthood and the lifelong impact of obesity is a major concern.

“To help manage this, we recommend that services looking after people with developmental disorders should screen for ACEs. They should absolutely insist that physical healthcare is given the same level of priority as psychological support for these patients. Obesity is not only life-threatening, but it has a daily impact on personal wellbeing.”

Further details of the paper can be found here.