It seems that researchers are linking inflammation to everything these days. The newest discovery seems far-fetched, but could there be some truth? A study conducted at Duke University revealed that students who are bullied have increased levels of low-grade, systemic inflammation. The study was conducted under the notion that children who are bullied suffer socially and physiologically even years after the bullying is discontinued. The researchers sought to explain the physical consequences of bullying – more specifically, what processes drive these physical consequences.
Data shows that kids who are bullied are sick more often than other kids who are not bullied. They suffer from psychological stress that manifests physically, like loss of appetite and headaches. This “bullying effect” places bullied children at risk for higher levels of inflammation as young adults. What’s most alarming, however, is that increased levels of systemic inflammation places people at risk for almost every disease. Heart disease becomes a major concern, as it remains to be the number one killer among Americans today.
The study followed 1,420 kids, aged 9-21. Researchers interviewed the children and their mothers regarding bullying throughout the study. Inflammation was measured by taking blood samples from the children and recording the level of a substance called C-reactive protein, which is an indicator of systemic inflammation. C-reactive protein levels can fluctuate by psychological and physical causes. Environmental stressors may influence C-reactive protein levels, and even lack of sleep or mood disorders are linked to abnormal levels.
C-reactive levels increased in all children as they aged, but researchers noted that the kids who reported being bullied had higher levels of inflammation than the group of non-bullied children. Interestingly, it seemed as though inflammation was directly related to the bullying, because higher levels of bullying reporting correlated directly with higher levels of inflammation. When looking at the evidence in light of the big picture, the truth is that it is not far-fetched that bullying early in life may be a contributing factor to chronic illness like cardiovascular disease, stroke, malignancy, and even diabetes.
Researchers are unsure how much bullying may contribute to disease later in life, as this data will not be available until the kids involved in the study reach their 40’s and 50’s. None of the kids involved in the study have developed cardiovascular disease, but it’s possible that they may be at increased risk for developing it later in life. Obviously, lifestyle and environmental factors will also be large factors in this equation, and they will likely major limitations in future studies. Children who did the bullying, but were not bullied exhibited an increase in inflammation, but the increase was not as significant as the increase seen in children who reported being bullied. Children who experienced bullying repetitively and in multiple settings experienced the highest inflammatory increase.
The study coincides with recent research that consistently links emotional and psychological factors to systemic inflammation. The mind is a powerful part of the body, but is often seen as separate from physiological processes. New research continues to highlight the body-mind connection, and should be of focus in future studies, especially in terms of possible treatment implications.