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Stress in a child's life may set stage for chronic disease when that child is grown
Analysis of a large British cohort study from 1958 suggests that children who have a lot of stress when they're young are more likely to be adults with chronic issues like heart disease, according to Harvard research. - photo by Lois M Collins
A stressful childhood may portend chronic illness later in life, including heart disease or diabetes, according to results of a Harvard study that spanned decades.

Researchers looked at data from the 1958 British Birth Cohort Study to see what happened to the roughly 6,700 children in later life. The findings were published recently in the Journal of The American College of Cardiology.

"We know that the childhood period is really important for setting up trajectories of health and well-being," Ashley Winning, an author of the study and postdoctoral research fellow in social and behavioral sciences at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, told NPR.

Even if they had low levels of stress as adults, the association remained between cardiometabolic ills and childhood stress.

The study included "psychological distress profiles" over the course of six assessments between the ages of 7 and 42. Each individual was slotted into a stress profile category: no distress, childhood only, adulthood only, or persistent distress. To see what happened in terms of heart and metabolic risk, researchers examined information of nine biomarkers of immune, cardiovascular and metabolic function. That gave them associations between stress and chronic health risk.

The researchers were quick to note they saw associations but could not prove cause.

Much of the early childhood assessment was done by teachers, who filled out a 146-question Bristols Social Adjustment Guide. WebMD said that "at 7, 11 and 16 years of age, teachers rated participants on symptoms of depression, restlessness, misbehavior, hostility, anxiety and related issues. Participants reported on their own mental health at ages 23, 33 and 42.

"Then, at age 45, participants were tested for cholesterol, heart rate, blood pressure and other characteristics to gauge the state of their immune system, along with their heart and metabolic health."

The study concluded that "psychological distress at any point in the life course is associated with higher cardiometabolic risk. This is the first study to suggest that even if distress appears to remit by adulthood, heightened risk of cardiometabolic disease remains."

That makes stress a possible target for prevention efforts, the researchers said.

Other research has also found health effects of stress. The National Institute of Mental Health lists some of them: "Some people experience mainly digestive symptoms, while others may have headaches, sleeplessness, depressed mood, anger and irritability. People under chronic stress are prone to more frequent and severe viral infections, such as the flu or common cold, and vaccines, such as the flu shot, are less effective for them."
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