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Impact of bullying lasts beyond childhood, Duke study shows

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A new study by Duke Medicine says victims of childhood bullying suffer long-term health consequences while bullies may actually reap health benefits related to raising their social status.

“Our findings look at the biological consequences of bullying, and by studying a marker of inflammation, provide a potential mechanism for how this social interaction can affect later health functioning,” said William E. Copeland, Ph.D., associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University School of Medicine and the study’s lead author.

Earlier studies have suggested that adults who were bullied as children suffered social and emotional consequences, including increases in anxiety and depression.

The new study says victims of bullying can experience “chronic, system inflammation,” even as adults.

“Among victims of bullying, there seems to be some impact on health status in adulthood,” Copeland said in a news release. “In this study, we asked whether childhood bullying can get ‘under the skin’ to affect physical health.”

Copeland and his colleagues used data from the Great Smoky Mountains Study, a robust, population-based study that gathered information on 1,420 individuals for more than 20 years.

Participants were interviewed throughout childhood, adolescence and young adulthood, and among other topics, were asked about their experiences with bullying. Researchers collected small blood samples to look at biological factors. Using the blood samples, the researchers measured C-reactive protein (CRP), a marker and a risk factor for health problems including metabolic syndrome and cardiovascular disease.

“CRP levels are affected by a variety of stressors, including poor nutrition, lack of sleep and infection, but we’ve found that they are also related to psychosocial factors,” Copeland said in a written release.

While bullying is more common and perceived as less harmful than childhood abuse or maltreatment, the findings suggest that bullying can disrupt levels of inflammation into adulthood, similar to what is seen in other forms of childhood trauma.

“Our study found that a child’s role in bullying can serve as either a risk or a protective factor for low-grade inflammation,” Copeland said. “Enhanced social status seems to have a biological advantage. However, there are ways children can experience social success aside from bullying others.”

The researchers concluded that reducing bullying, as well as reducing inflammation among victims of bullying, could be key targets for promoting physical and emotional health and lessening the risk for diseases associated with inflammation.

The study was done in collaboration with researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the University of Warwick and Emory University.

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