Having a stressful childhood may slash decades off a person's life, researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report.

Among people who reported experiencing at least six of eight different bad childhood experiences-from frequent verbal abuse to living with a mentally ill person-average age at death was about 61, compared to 79 for people who didn't have any of these experiences as children, the researchers found.

Dr. David W. Brown and Dr. Robert Anda of the CDC and colleagues from the CDC and Kaiser Permanente have been following 17,337 men and women who visited the health plan between 1995 and 1997 to investigate the relationship between bad childhood experiences and health.

So far, Anda noted in an interview, they have shown links between childhood stressors and heart disease, lung disease, liver disease and other conditions. The strength of it really surprised me, how powerfully it's related to health, the researcher said.

In the current analysis, the researchers reviewed death records through 2006 to investigate whether these experiences might also relate to mortality. During that time, 1,539 study participants died.

Each person was asked whether they had any of eight different categories of such experiences, including verbal abuse, physical abuse, sexual abuse with physical contact, having a battered mother, having a substance-abusing person in the household, having a mentally ill person in the household, having a household member who was incarcerated, or having one's parents separate or divorce.

Sixty-nine percent of the study participants who were younger than 65 reported at least one of the adverse childhood experiences, while 53 percent of people 65 and older did.

Those who reporting experiencing six or more were 1.5 times more likely to die during follow-up than those who reported none, the researchers found. They were 1.7 times as likely to die at age 75 or younger, and nearly 2.4 times as likely to die at or before age 65.

There are a number of ways that a traumatic childhood could contribute to ill health, Anda noted. For example, childhood stress affects brain development, so individuals who've experienced it may be more likely to suffer from depression and anxiety, and more prone to deal with stress in unhealthy ways, for example by drinking alcohol or smoking cigarettes.

Just a third of the people in the study were completely free of any sort of childhood trauma, Anda added, making it clear that these sorts of harmful experiences are widespread.

If we want to address a lot of major public health issues we've got to address the kind of stressors children have in our society as a way of primary prevention, he said.

SOURCE: American Journal of Preventive Medicine, November 2009.