African-American women who reported suffering abuse before age 11 are at greater risk of developing adult-onset asthma, compared to those whose childhoods were free of abuse, according to research published online in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology. Weaker associations were also made for childhood sexual abuse and any abuse during adolescence.

“This is the first prospective study to show an association between childhood abuse and adult-onset asthma. The results suggest that chronic stress contributes to asthma onset, even years later,” said lead author Patricia Coogan, DSc, senior epidemiologist at SEC and associate professor of epidemiology at the Boston University School of Public Health. Investigators hypothesize the mechanism linking childhood abuse to asthma incidence is stress and its physiological consequences, particularly effects on the immune system and on airway development. “Given the high prevalence of asthma and of childhood abuse in the United States, the association is of significant public health importance.”

For the study, 28,456 African-American women completed health questionnaires and provided information on physical and sexual abuse during childhood. Results indicated that the incidence of adult-onset asthma was increased by more than 20% among women who had been abused during childhood. The evidence was stronger for physical abuse than for sexual abuse. There was little indication, however, that abuse during adolescence was associated with the risk of adult-onset asthma.