Childhood stress may increase risk of heart disease, diabetes in adulthood

By @iamkarlatecson on
Children playing
Children play at the Mount Lavinia beach in Colombo October 2 , 2011. Reuters/Dinuka Liyanawatte

Children who experience high levels of stress are more likely to suffer from heart disease and diabetes later in life, a new research reveals. The study, published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, supports growing evidence that psychological distress initiated early in life contributes to higher risks of cardiovascular and metabolic diseases.

To determine the association between childhood stress and health impact risks in adults, researchers from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston analysed data from the 1958 British Birth Cohort Study, which involved almost 7,000 participants who were born in the same week.

In the new study, the researchers gathered information about all the subjects when they reached the ages 7, 11, 16, 23, 33 and 42 years. At age 45, the participants’ blood pressure was checked, and blood samples were taken and assessed for nine biological indicators. Using this information, the researchers created a cardiometabolic risk score that indicates one’s risk for heart disease and diabetes.

The researchers found that participants with persistent distress throughout their lives had the highest cardiometabolic risk score, as compared with those who reported low levels of distress. Cardiometabolic disease risk was also observed to be higher for subjects who experienced stress until middle adulthood than people who were overweight in childhood. Persistent distress continued to have significantly higher risk scores despite the adjustment of a range of factors, such as medication use, socioeconomic status and health behaviours.

“While effects of distress in early childhood on higher cardiometabolic risk in adulthood appeared to be somewhat mitigated if distress levels were lower by adulthood, they were not eradicated. This highlights the potentially lasting impact of childhood distress on adult physical health,” says lead author Ashley Winning from the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Diabetes is the fastest-growing chronic condition in Australia, with 280 individuals developing the condition every day. To date, around 1.7 million Australians are reportedly suffering from diabetes. Cardiovascular disease, meanwhile, is considered to be a major cause of death in Australia, affecting 3.72 million individuals, according to the Heart Foundation.

Winnings says their findings also show that adversity in a child’s social environment increases the likelihood of developing high levels of distress. Early prevention and intervention strategies, she suggests, should be focused not only on the child but also on his or her social circumstances to possibly reduce the long-lasting harmful effects of stress.

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