Recent studies reveal that bullied children are at risk for chronic inflammation and illness in adult life.
Bullying consists of repeated physical and/or psychological mistreatment and is common among school children. Though many consider it harmless in the long run, and actually a sort of “formative” experience, recent studies have revealed that it has instead significant negative effects on physical health and psychosocial behavior. Bullied children often present a variety of symptoms from poor appetite and sleep to frequent head and stomach aches, sore throats, colds. Without intervention, the effects of bullying persist into adulthood and may promote not only psychosocial problems but also health problems, including serious illnesses, obesity, anxiety, psychiatric disorders. But how does bullying affect physical health?
One of the main hypotheses is that repeated aggressions typical of bullying disrupt the normal response to stress, changing the levels of hormones and chemical mediators that participate in several physiological processes –from neurotransmission to immune functions- and thus causing illness. However, no formal proof existed until now that bullying can impact physiological functions to the point of significantly impairing health.
In a paper recently published in PNAS, Copeland and colleagues from Duke University extend their previous studies and demonstrate that in fact bullying promotes a state of low-grade systemic inflammation during childhood and adolescence, which carries through to adulthood.
The scientists studied a large group of over 1400 children who were involved in repeated bullying as perpetrators or victims, followed them through adolescence until they reached 16 years of age, and later monitored them once they attained adulthood (19 to 21 years of age). As an indicator of general health, they measured the blood levels of a molecule called C-reactive Protein (CRP), which is a well-known marker of inflammation, linked to cardiovascular and metabolic disorders.
The scientists found that CRP increased to greater levels in bullying victims compared to bullies, and higher levels persisted in the victims for several years into adulthood, indicating that bullied children had developed long-lasting, systemic, low-grade inflammation. The researchers interpret the changes in CRP as a sign of alterations of the stress response and suggest that repeated bullying could reduce the release of antinflammatory mediators such as cortisol, thus inducing chronic inflammation that may favor further illness.
These observations prove that bullying should be considered as a form of mistreatment with potential harming consequences not only on psychosocial functions but also on physical health. Moreover, they suggest a mechanism through which bullying may impair health, and thus a potential target for therapeutic treatment that certainly deserves further study.
Copeland, W., Wolke, D., Lereya, S., Shanahan, L., Worthman, C., & Costello, E. (2014). Childhood bullying involvement predicts low-grade systemic inflammation into adulthood Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111 (21), 7570-7575 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1323641111
Wolke, D., Copeland, W., Angold, A., & Costello, E. (2013). Impact of Bullying in Childhood on Adult Health, Wealth, Crime, and Social Outcomes Psychological Science, 24 (10), 1958-1970 DOI: 10.1177/0956797613481608
adulthood, bullying, chronic inflammation, health, illness, mistreatment, therapeutic treatment