Unhealthy responses to stress, whether physical or emotional, as a result of abuse, violence, and other experiences of adversity in childhood and teen years are linked to an increased risk of heart disease later in life. A recent review of research led by the American Heart Association (AHA) came to this conclusion, and now experts are hoping to find new ways to prevent both heart disease and negative childhood experiences that raise the risk of developing it.
"We are talking about children and teens experiencing physical and sexual abuse and witnessing violence,” said Shakira Suglia, ScD from Emory University. “Sadly, the negative consequences of experiencing these events does not end when the experience ends, it lasts many years after exposure."
Experts report that over half of all Americans report experiencing some sort of adversity in their childhood, whether it is violence, bullying, abuse, or some other threat to their physical or social well-being. Not all who experience adversity will develop heart disease because of it, though, which means that there are certain factors that counter the effect of adversity.
Researchers found a strong connection between children who have adverse experiences and adults who ultimately develop risk factors for heart disease like obesity, high blood pressure, and type 2 diabetes earlier than individuals who did not have these experiences growing up. And has research has shown time and time again, these well-established risk factors for heart disease often lead to coronary artery disease, heart attacks, and strokes.
"We need more research to better understand how to help people who have had adversity in childhood prevent or delay the development of heart and blood vessel diseases,” researchers from the AHA wrote.
How are experiences of adversity and heart health related? The specific mechanisms are difficult to pin down, but ultimately researchers believe that it is behavioral, mental, and biological reactions to increased stress from childhood adversity that lead to heart disease later in life.
For example, studies show that chronic childhood stress is linked to depression, anxiety, and mood disorders, as well as the disturbance of of immune, metabolic, nervous, and endocrine development and function.
Going forward, AHA researchers and other experts plan on studying the link between childhood adversity and heart disease further, with the hope that early identification of high-risk individuals can help reduce the overall burden of heart disease.
The present study was published in the journal Circulation.
Sources: American Heart Association