Early-life trauma linked to health problems in later life

URI College of Nursing study aims to mitigate damage to metabolic hormones

Media Contact: Patrick Luce, 401-874-4046 |

KINGSTON, R.I. — July 3, 2019 — Experiencing significant trauma or adversity early in life is a major risk factor for poor health later, but the specific links between early life trauma and negative health outcomes as an adult are not fully understood.

URI College of Nursing Professor Karen Jennings aims to better define those links with the goal of finding more patient-centered treatment options to mitigate the negative health effects of the early trauma. Her study — “Relationship Among Childhood Parental Loss, Adipokines, Dietary Composition and Physical Health Status in Adults” — has been funded by a $25,000 grant from the Heilbrunn Family Center for Research Nursing at Rockefeller University.

The study examines adipokines, a group of hormones in the body, including leptin and ghrelin, that play essential roles in energy homeostasis and body weight. Previous studies have shown that chronic stress and significant early-life trauma — such as that caused by a child losing her parents through death or abandonment — can increase the risk for abnormalities in the patient’s adipokines, leading to significant health problems, including obesity and diabetes.

“Adipokines have been shown to play an active role in how our bodies use the energy we take in,” Jennings said. “Stress may contribute to abnormalities in these hormones. Studies suggest that early life trauma may play a role in the regulation of adipokines, which are in turn determinants of the pathogenesis of obesity and metabolic syndrome. Early-life trauma is integral to the regulation of these hormones and health outcomes.”

Jennings’ study will expand on the data collected by Dr. Audrey Tyrka, a psychiatrist at Butler Hospital in Providence, who examined study participants who suffered parental loss before the age of 10. Using a combination of blood tests, health assessments, weight, height and waist circumference measurements, and interviews about the participants’ diets and health habits, Tyrka’s study aimed to better understand neuroendocrine, neuroimmune, epigenetic and cellular aging processes as they relate to mood and anxiety disorders and related health conditions such as obesity and metabolic syndrome.

Jennings will now drill down into that data to see how the hormones are specifically affected by early-life trauma, define the connection between trauma and poor eating patterns, and examine how that damage may be reversed.

“The goal is to show the relationship between childhood parental loss and negative health outcomes,” Jennings said. “We can’t change early-life trauma, but is there a way to alter specific aspects of the dietary composition to promote physical and mental health. Can we change something in the diet to alter adipokines and improve health outcomes?”