Researchers found that even when conditions improved in adulthood, people who experienced persistent distress in their childhood had the highest cardiometabolic risk score.
“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,” Ashley Winning, lead author of the study said in a statement.
For the study, researchers collected and analyzed data from a 45-year study of nearly 7,000 people born in a single week in Great Britain in 1958. They 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. They also 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, for each.
They found that 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.
“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 authors said. “This highlights the potentially lasting impact of childhood distress on adult physical health.”
Winning of the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health said, “It is also increasingly apparent that adversity in a child’s social environment increases the likelihood of developing high levels of distress. 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.”