Childhood stress and adversity associated with late-life dementia in Aboriginal Australians

According to new research, childhood stress appears to have a significant impact on emotional health and the high rates of dementia observed in Aboriginal Australians.

Previous studies by Dr Tony Broe have indicated Aboriginal Australians are 3-5 times more likely to experience dementia than the general Australian population.

The new research paper describes childhood stress in older Aboriginal Australians and associations with late-life health and dementia.

NeuRA research fellow Dr Kylie Radford and colleagues looked at possible impacts across the life course that could contribute to the higher rates of dementia observed in Aboriginal Australians in their latest research paper Childhood Stress and Adversity is Associated with Late-Life Dementia in Aboriginal Australians.

Dr Radford examined the validity of the Childhood Trauma Questionnaire (CTQ) in a cross sectional study with a representative sample of community-dwelling older Aboriginal Australians, from both urban and regional communities in New South Wales, Australia.

Participants completed a life course survey of health, wellbeing, cognition and social history including the CTQ, with consensus diagnosis of dementia and Alzheimer's disease.

CTQ scores were associated with several adverse childhood indicators including separation from family, poor childhood health, frequent relocation and growing up in a major city.

When controlling for age, higher CTQ scores were associated with depression, anxiety, suicide attempt, dementia diagnosis and, specifically, Alzheimer's disease. 

The association between CTQ scores and dementia remained significant after controlling for depression and anxiety variables. In contrast, there were no significant associations between CTQ scores and smoking, alcohol abuse, diabetes or cardiovascular risk factors.

While age and head injury have emerged as key dementia risk factors in remote Aboriginal communities, risk factors for the majority urban-dwelling population are unknown, and potential childhood risk factors (with the exception of education) had not previously been addressed.

“The ongoing effects of childhood stress need to be recognized as people grow older, particularly in terms of dementia prevention and care, as well as in populations with greater exposure to childhood adversity, such as Aboriginal Australians,” Dr Radford said.

“Exposure to stress and adversity can have long lasting effects on people and we need to learn more about the way trauma and stress impact brain health throughout our lifespan, for Aboriginal Australian communities and for all communities globally.

“These results contribute to a growing body of research suggesting adverse early life exposures increase dementia risk in older age.”

Childhood Stress and Adversity is Associated with Late-Life Dementia in Aboriginal Australians research paper was published by Dr Kylie Radford in collaboration with Associate Professor Kim Delbaere, Dr Brian Draper, Dr Holly A. Mack, Gail Daylight, Dr Robert Cumming, Dr Simon Chalkley, Cecilia Minogue and Dr Tony Broe.