MONDAY, May 10 (HealthDay News) -- Not surprisingly, a new study finds that older women who are exposed to physical and verbal abuse have poor mental health.
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But an unexpected twist did show up in the results, study author Dr. Charles P. Mouton said, in that verbal abuse alone was more damaging than physical abuse alone.
Why? "The physical abuse may be perceived as minor or something they lived with their whole life," said Mouton, chair of community and family medicine at Howard University in Washington, D.C. The study is published in the May/June issue of the Annals of Family Medicine.
Mouton and his co-researchers analyzed data on nearly 94,000 women, aged 50 to 79, who had participated in the large Women's Health Initiative study.
Women who had been abused either physically or verbally over a three-year period had lower scores for mental health, a greater number of depressive symptoms, more social strain and less optimism about life than did women who weren't abused.
While the effects of abuse on younger women have been studied by many researchers, Mouton said the latest study is one of the first to look at older women.
"When I first set up the study, I anticipated the bigger effect for physical and psychological outcomes would have both been driven by exposure to physical abuse," he said.
"But we found verbal abuse had a significant impact," he said. "The group who had verbal abuse-only reported more depressive symptoms than the group that had physical abuse-only. The group who reported the most depressive symptoms had both physical and verbal abuse."
This suggests that the effects of any kind of abuse are wide-ranging, affecting mental health and happiness. "They are less optimistic about their lives," he said. "They have poorer overall mental health, and they have an increase in depressive symptoms. Their quality of life declines at a time when we like to think they are enjoying their golden years."
The study results may surprise people, but the findings reflect what experts have seen clinically for years, said Dr. Juley Fulcher, director of policy programs for Break the Cycle, an organization devoted to addressing dating violence in youth.
The findings do add to what Fulcher said is a scarcity of research in this area. "There's been limited research specifically on older women," said Fulcher, an adjunct professor of women's studies at Georgetown University, Washington, D.C.
While some women in Mouton's study reported only physical or only verbal abuse, Fulcher said that's not the typical scenario. "Most commonly, we are talking about some combination of physical, verbal and sexual abuse," she said.
In a second study, published in the same issue of the journal, New Zealand researchers found that social contact is as effective as physical activity in lifting the mood of depressed older people. The researchers assigned 193 people, aged 75 and older, who had depressive symptoms to either engage in an individualized physical activity program or to receive social visits.
Both groups improved in measures related to mood and mental health.
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SOURCES: Charles Mouton, M.D., professor, community and family medicine, Howard University, Washington, D.C.; Juley Fulcher, Ph.D., J.D., director, policy programs, Break the Cycle, and adjunct professor, women's studies, Washington, D.C.; May/June 2010, Annals of Family Medicine