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Childhood stress ups risk of heart disease, diabetes

Childhood stress

Washington : Psychological distress in childhood is associated with higher risk for heart disease and diabetes later in life, even when conditions improved in adulthood, according to a 45-year study of nearly 7,000 people.

The study looked at information related to stress and mental health collected about participants in the 1958 British Birth Cohort Study at ages 7, 11, 16, 23, 33 and 42.

Researchers collected data for nine biological indicators at age 45 using information from blood samples and blood pressure measures to create a score indicating risk for heart disease and diabetes, known as the cardiometabolic risk score.

The study found that people with persistent distress throughout their lives had the highest cardiometabolic risk score relative to participants who reported low levels of distress throughout childhood and adulthood.

Using the same comparison group, participants with high levels of distress occurring primarily in childhood, and those with high levels of distress occurring primarily in adulthood also exhibited higher cardiometabolic risk.

The estimated risk for cardiometabolic disease for people with persistent distress through to middle adulthood was higher than risk commonly observed for people who are overweight in childhood.

After adjusting for a range of factors that might affect these associations, including medication use, socioeconomic status, and health behaviours, the researchers found the risk for people who experienced high distress levels primarily in adulthood was not different compared with those with low levels of distress over their life course.

But participants who experienced high distress primarily in childhood and those with persistent distress continued to have significantly higher risk scores even after considering those other factors.

“This study supports growing evidence that psychological distress contributes to excess risk of cardiovascular and metabolic disease and that effects may be initiated relatively early in life,” said lead author Ashley Winning, of Department of Social and Behavioural Sciences at Harvard University’s TH Chan School of Public Health.

“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,” the researchers said.

“This highlights the potentially lasting impact of childhood distress on adult physical health,” they said.

“It is also increasingly apparent that adversity in a child’s social environment increases the likelihood of developing high levels of distress,” Winning said.

“Thus, early prevention and intervention strategies focused not only on the child but also on his or her social circumstances may be an effective way to reduce the long-lasting harmful effects of distress,” Winning said.

The study was published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology.

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