Stress in childhood may be linked to hardening of the arteries in adulthood, new research suggests.
Finnish researchers studied 311 children 12 to 18 years old, scoring their levels of stress according to a variety of components, including the family’s economic circumstances, the emotional environment in the home, whether parents engaged in healthy behaviors, stressful events (such as divorce, moves or death of a family member) and parental concerns about the child’s social adjustment. Using these criteria, they calculated a stress score.
When the members of the group were 40 to 46 years old, they used computed tomography to measure coronary artery calcification, a marker of atherosclerosis and a risk factor for cardiovascular disease.
The study, in JAMA Pediatrics, controlled for sex, cholesterol, body mass index and other factors, but still found that the higher the childhood stress score, the greater the risk for coronary artery calcification.
The study is observational, and the data is based largely on parental reports, which can be biased. Still, its long follow-up time and careful control of other variables gives it considerable strength. There are plausible mechanisms for the connection, including stress-induced increases in inflammation, which in animal models have been linked to a variety of ailments.
“I think that economic conditions are important here,” said the lead author, Dr. Markus Juonala, a professor of internal medicine at the University of Turku in Finland. “Public health interventions should focus on how to intervene in better ways with people with higher stress and lower socioeconomic status.”