DOI: 10.5694/mja2.52089 ISSN:

Sexual abuse during childhood and all‐cause mortality into middle adulthood: an Australian cohort study

Nina Papalia, Benjamin L Spivak, Linda Ashford, Ahona Guha, Stefan Luebbers, James RP Ogloff
  • General Medicine



To compare mortality from all causes, internal causes (eg, cancers, circulatory and respiratory system diseases), and external causes (eg, suicide, accidents, assault) among people who were sexually abused during childhood with mortality for the general population.


Historical cohort study.

Setting, participants

2759 people (2201 women, 79.8%) who had experienced medically assessed contact sexual abuse in Victoria while aged 16 years or younger during 1964–1995, as recorded in Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine records.

Main outcome measures

Mortality rate, based on linked National Death Index data (1980–2020), by five‐year age group; sex‐ and age‐standardised mortality ratios; comparison of rates with age‐ and sex‐adjusted rates for the general Victorian population (incident rate ratio [IRR]).


We included 115 deaths of people under 50 years of age in our analysis (4.2% of people sexually abused as children; 79 women, 36 men); 56 deaths were attributed to external, 56 to internal causes (cause of death information missing in three cases). In each age group from 15–19 years, the mortality rates for people sexually abused as children were higher than for the general population; age‐ and sex‐standardised all‐cause mortality ratios were highest for people aged 25–29 years (men: 16.5; 95% confidence interval [CI], 11.0–22.0; women: 19.2; 95% CI, 14.3–24.2). The age‐ and sex‐adjusted mortality rate for people sexually abused as children was higher than in the general population for all‐cause (IRR, 8.25; 95% CI, 5.92–11.5), internal cause (IRR, 5.92; 95% CI, 3.89–9.01), and external cause deaths (IRR, 12.6; 95% CI, 9.61–16.6); the differences in external cause mortality were greater for people who had experienced penetrative (IRR, 14.9; 95% CI, 10.9–20.5) than for those who had experienced non‐penetrative sexual abuse as children (IRR, 8.92; 95% CI, 5.35–14.9).


Sexual abuse during childhood is associated with higher mortality rates into mid‐adulthood. Preventing child sexual abuse and intervening early to reduce the damage it inflicts is not only essential for the welfare of the child, but could also help reduce avoidable deaths later in life.

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