Stress During Childhood Linked to Increased Risk of Diabetes, Poor Heart Health

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A new study finds that adults who experienced high, sustained levels of stress as children were more likely to have health indicators.

Consistent high stress, whether real or perceived, during childhood may contribute to an increased risk of diabetes and poor heart health, a new study reports.

The study, published in the Journal of the American Heart Association, reveals that when people experience stress as young children, they are more likely to be obese and are at greater risk of experiencing metabolic issues, which include diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

The findings are a stark call to action to reduce childhood stress, especially as the rates of depression and anxiety in children have increased over time, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease and Control Prevention (CDC), and as cardiometabolic diseases, which include cardiovascular disease and diabetes, are the leading cause of death in the United States.

To determine the link between childhood stress and cardiometabolic risk, the research team followed 276 participants enrolled in the Southern California Children’s Health Study. The 18-year study began in 2003 and included 154 men and 122 women. Nearly two-thirds (62 percent) of participants were white, about 47 percent were Hispanic, 5.4 percent were Asian, and less than 2 percent were black. Just under half of the participants had parents with cardiometabolic history.

The research team found that adults who experienced high, sustained levels of stress as children were more likely to have health indicators. Specifically, the findings indicate positive associations between perceived stress in childhood and obesity in adulthood. The research team based obesity on body mass index (BMI), body fat, and albumin/globulin ratio, which measures the total protein levels in the blood. Women who experienced stress as children were more likely to be obese as adults than men.

Additionally, perceived stress is likely to influence blood pressure, the study found. Participants who experienced increased levels of perceived stress had higher diastolic blood pressure readings than individuals with lower levels of perceived stress.

How Perceived Stress Leads to Increased Cardiometabolic Risk

According to the study, the link between perceived stress and cardiometabolic risk has two possible explanations. First, individuals under more stress are likely to engage in behaviors that compromise their health, such as eating high-calorie, high-fat diets while not exercising.

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“These behavioral risk factors may, in turn, lead to an increased risk of cardiometabolic diseases,” the research team wrote.

The second way perceived stress could lead to cardiometabolic risk is predicated on the theory that stress creates inflammation in the body. Stress hormones like catecholamines and corticosteroids activate the immune system. Excessive, persistent inflammation can stress the cardiovascular system, causing endothelial harm or hardening the arteries.

Need for Healthy Coping Mechanisms More Important Than Ever

The researchers noted their findings “suggest that promoting healthy coping strategies for stress management early in life … may facilitate the prevention of cardiometabolic diseases.”

Childhood stress can occur anytime a child has to adapt or change. Stress can sometimes be caused by positive changes, like when starting a new activity, but most of the time, it is linked to negative changes, like the death of a family member or an illness. Small amounts of stress can be good, but excessive stress can affect how a child thinks, acts, and feels.

Everyday stressors for children include:

  • Worrying about school.
  • Managing responsibilities, like school, work, or extracurricular activities.
  • Peer interactions and bullying.
  • Self-esteem issues.
  • Moving, changing schools, or coping with housing issues.
  • Experiencing puberty.
  • Watching parents get divorced or separated.
  • Money problems at home.
  • Living in an unsafe place.

These stressors can lead to adverse childhood experiences, also known as ACEs. ACEs are potentially traumatic events that occur in childhood that can have a lasting impact on a child, according to the CDC. About 64 percent of U.S. adults reported experiencing at least one type of ACE before the age of 18, and nearly 1 in 6 reported experiencing four or more ACEs.

ACEs are costly to the economy, adding a $748 billion burden to Bermuda, Canada, and the United States, the CDC reports.

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