New research suggests that children who experience emotional distress during childhood are at an increased risk for heart disease and diabetes in adulthood. The study, published online Sept. 28 in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology (JACC), found that even when stress abated in adulthood, childhood stress still upped the chances of cardiac and metabolic disorders.
“The most striking and perhaps sobering finding in our study is that high levels of childhood distress predicted heightened adult disease risk, even when there was no evidence that these high levels of distress persisted into adulthood,” study author Ashley Winning, ScD, MPH, a postdoctoral research fellow at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston, told HealthDay.
For the study, Winning and her colleagues analyzed data from the 1958 British Birth Cohort Study that followed 6,714 children born in the same week in 1958. The 45-year-long study tracked participants from ages 7 to 42, assessing their levels of emotional stress six times over the years.
As part of the study, teachers rated participants on such behaviors as depression, restlessness, misbehavior, hostility and anxiousness when they were 7, 11, and 16 years old. Study participants self-reported on their mental state at ages 23, 33 and 42. At age 45, the participants were tested for cholesterol, heart rate and blood pressure to measure their heart and metabolic health and the state of their immune system.
Even after taking into account participants’ socioeconomic status, weight, early health problems, diet, smoking habits, exercise and medications, the findings revealed that the risk for heart disease and metabolic disorders was highest among those who experienced stress throughout their lives.
“Not surprisingly, those with persistent distress – so, both in childhood and adulthood – had the highest risk,” Winning told NPR. The real surprise, however, was the finding that participants who had lower stress levels as adults but who had higher stress levels as kids, were still at greater risk for chronic illness, Winning said.
“This study supports growing evidence that psychological distress contributes to excess risk of cardiovascular and metabolic disease and that effects may be initiated early in life,” Winning said in a JACC news release.
Still, Winning indicated that the study shows an association and not a cause-and-effect relationship. She emphasized that a stressful childhood did not necessarily mean that a person would have heart disease or diabetes, or suffer a stroke in adulthood.
What can be concluded from the study, said Aric Prather, PhD, a research psychologist in the department of psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco, is that based on the number of people tracked for over four decades, the findings are worth paying attention to and worth following up on with additional research. “There’s certainly growing evidence that there may be some biological embedding that takes place,” Prather, who was not involved in the study, told NPR.
It is possible, he said, that when children experience life stress, “it actually changes something about them biologically.” Stress may influence how genes get switched on or off, for instance, or may initiate some other physiological effects, Prather explained.
The bottom line, said Winning in the news release, is that “greater attention must be paid to psychological distress in childhood. It is an important issue in its own right and may also set up a trajectory of risk of poor health as people age.”