3 in 5 middle-aged and older Canadians had 'traumatic' childhood experiences: report

McMaster University researchers estimate that around three in every five Canadian adults aged 45 to 85 were exposed to harmful experiences during their childhood, such as abuse.

Exposure to physical abuse was most common experience reported in study

Around 62 per cent of people in the study reported at least one exposure to an adverse childhood event, such as physical abuse.

McMaster University researchers estimate that around three in every five Canadian adults aged 45 to 85 have been exposed to "adverse childhood experiences," including abuse, neglect, intimate partner violence or other household adversity.

The study said that cases of these harmful experiences were highly prevalent among middle-aged and older adults, and presented a serious public health concern. 

Divya Joshi, the study's lead author and postdoctoral fellow at the university, said the results were shocking. 

"It is surprising for us to see that the numbers were as high as they are," she said. 

Reports of abuse among common experiences

The most common reported experiences, according to the study, were exposure to physical abuse, intimate partner violence, and emotional abuse. 

More than one in four adults in the study reported exposure to physical abuse, and one in five reported exposure to the latter two experiences. 

There are currently no population-level estimates for a wide range of adverse childhood experiences for this age group, Joshi said. While there are some available from clinical populations or childcare services, the researchers wanted to further examine its prevalence among adults. 

Divya Joshi, lead author, said it's also important for clinicians to be aware of the results, so that they integrate trauma-informed care in their practice. (McMaster University)

Researchers used data from 44,817 participants who were enrolled in the Canadian Longitudinal Study on Aging. Those participants answered questionnaires about their adverse childhood experiences, both over the phone and through face-to-face interviews between 2015 and 2018. 

Around 62 per cent of them reported at least one exposure in their childhood to these types of events. 

"That's significant to think that almost two thirds of our population have experienced something traumatic in their childhood," she said. 

The report was published in CMAJ Open, which is an online open-access medical journal.

The study said its results were in line with other Canadian statistics, which have estimated the "prevalence of exposure to physical abuse to be 26 per cent, sexual abuse to be between 7 per cent and 15 per cent, emotional abuse to be between 14 per cent and 17 per cent, intimate partner violence to be between 6 per cent and 26 per cent, parental divorce or separation to be between 11 per cent and 17.6 per cent, and poor parental mental health to be 20.6 per cent."

The study said that men reported more physical abuse, while women reported greater exposure to sexual and emotional abuse, neglect, intimate partner violence and living with a family member with mental health problems. A greater proportion of women also reported experiencing four or more adverse childhood experiences. 

Women, lower-income people report experiencing more incidents

While the experiences were widespread among adults, Joshi noted that some people experienced an unequal or greater burden. Reporting varied by factors like the age, sex, socioeconomic status, education, and sexual orientation. 

Those who reported greater exposure included "people younger than 65, women, those with less education, lower annual household income, and those of non-heterosexual orientation."

Andrea Gonzalez, a member of the research team and associate professor, said the study emphasizes the need to improve the quality of home environments for children. (McMaster University)

The researchers haven't been able to investigate why the younger participants reported more experiences, but Joshi said the hypothesis is that they might be more likely to acknowledge or report maltreatment.

But those who are older, she said, may be more reluctant to disclose experiences that might be viewed as more stigmatising, especially during the time period when they were born. 

"There is that whole culture aspect of what was acceptable and what is considered as physical abuse," Joshi said. For example, she said, older persons might not view a slap as physical abuse, but as an acceptable practice during their growing-up years. 

"I think that there's more investigation that needs to be done in what these findings actually mean in terms of participants' experiences."

When breaking down the data across Canadian provinces, British Columbia, Alberta, Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec reported higher numbers in several categories of these experiences. The study didn't include people living in Canada's territories. 

Author calls on clinicians to be aware of findings

Joshi said the results paint the picture of a poor-quality household environment and emphasize the need to take steps to improve it. She said it's important that people recognize how social networks and supports can alleviate harms that could stem from experiencing something harmful in childhood. 

But it's also important for clinicians to be aware, she said, so that they "integrate trauma-informed care in their practice so that they can prevent the negative consequences that are associated with adverse childhood experiences."

The researchers also say that there's growing evidence suggesting that these experiences affect people's ability to "age successfully." That not only includes one's physical, psychological and social health, the study said, but also their satisfaction with life. 

Joshi said the researchers want to investigate this more to better understand a link to poor health outcomes. 

Andrea Gonzalez, a member of the research team and an associate professor in psychiatry and behavioural neurosciences at the university, said the data shows strategies are needed to increase awareness of these experiences and their long-lasting consequences. 

"We need to take measures to improve the quality of household environments, support positive parenting and promote healthy child development, as well as integrate trauma-informed care to prevent the negative consequences of adverse childhood experiences," said Gonzalez in a media release.