National Academy of Sciences, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 4(104), p. 1319-1324, 2007
Stress in early life has been associated with insufficient glucocorticoid signaling in adulthood, possibly affecting inflammation processes. Childhood maltreatment has been linked to increased risk of adult disease with potential inflammatory origin. However, the impact of early life stress on adult inflammation is not known in humans. We tested the life-course association between childhood maltreatment and adult inflammation in a birth cohort followed to age 32 years as part of the Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Study. Regression models were used to estimate the effect of maltreatment on inflammation, adjusting for co-occurring risk factors and potential mediating variables. Maltreated children showed a significant and graded increase in the risk for clinically relevant C-reactive protein levels 20 years later, in adulthood [risk ratio (RR) = 1.80, 95% confidence interval (CI) = 1.26–2.58]. The effect of childhood maltreatment on adult inflammation was independent of the influence of co-occurring early life risks (RR = 1.58, 95% CI = 1.08–2.31), stress in adulthood (RR = 1.64, 95% CI = 1.12–2.39), and adult health and health behavior (RR = 1.76, 95% CI = 1.23–2.51). More than 10% of cases of low-grade inflammation in the population, as indexed by high C-reactive protein, may be attributable to childhood maltreatment. The association between maltreatment and adult inflammation also generalizes to fibrinogen and white blood cell count. Childhood maltreatment is a previously undescribed, independent, and preventable risk factor for inflammation in adulthood. Inflammation may be an important developmental mediator linking adverse experiences in early life to poor adult health.