Child abuse is a major global burden with an enduring negative impact on mental and physical health. A history of child abuse is consistently associated with worse cognitive performance among adults; data in older age groups are inconclusive. Since affective symptoms and cognitive functioning are interrelated among older persons, a synergistic effect can be assumed in patients with affective symptoms who also have suffered from child abuse. This study examines the association between a history of child abuse and cognitive performance in such patients.
Cross-sectional data were collected from the ‘Routine Outcome Monitoring for Geriatric Psychiatry & Science’ project, including 179 older adults (age 60-88 years) with either a unipolar depressive, any anxiety, or somatic symptom disorder referred to specialized geriatric mental health care. A history of physical, sexual, and psychological abuse, and emotional neglect was assessed with a structured interview. Cognitive functioning was measured with three paper and pencils tests (10-words verbal memory test, Stroop Colour-Word test, Digit Span) and four tests from the computerized Cogstate Test Battery (Detection Test, Identification Test, One Card Learning Test, One Back Test). The association between a history of child abuse and cognitive performance was examined by multiple linear regression analyses adjusted for covariates.
Principal component analyses of nine cognitive parameters revealed four cognitive domains, i.e., visual-verbal memory, psychomotor speed, working memory and interference control. A history of child abuse was not associated with any of these cognitive domains. However, when looking at the specific types of child abuse separately, a history of physical abuse and emotional neglect were associated with poorer interference control. A history of physical abuse was additionally associated with better visual-verbal memory.
The association between a history of child abuse and cognitive performance differs between the different types of abuse. A history of physical abuse might particularly be a key determinant of cognitive performance in older adults with a depressive, anxiety, or somatic symptom disorder. Future studies on the impact of these disorders on the onset of dementia should take child abuse into account.