Children with behavioral problems may be at a higher risk for chronic diseases later in life, including heart disease, obesity, diabetes, and inflammatory illnesses, according to a new study.
Analyzing data on more than 4,000 children in the Children of the 90s study at the University of Bristol, researchers from Harvard and Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health found that children with behavioral problems at the age of 8 had higher levels of two proteins — C-reactive protein (CRP) and Interleukin 6 (IL-6) — in their blood when tested at the age of 10.
This was the case even after a number of other factors, including sex, race, background, and medication use, were taken into account, the researchers reported in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology.
Having raised levels of CRP and IL-6 can be an early warning sign that a person may be at risk of chronic or inflammatory conditions later in life, the researchers explained.
Previous research has shown that children with behavioral problems can go on to develop health problems during adulthood, but this is the first time that a link has been found between mental health and inflammation in childhood, according to the researchers.
The link may be that many behavioral problems are associated with how the hypothalamic pituitary adrenal (HPA) axis works, the researchers postulated. The HPA axis plays a major role in controlling reactions to stress and the immune system. If it malfunctions, it can stimulate the release of the two proteins that cause elevated levels of inflammation, which is tissue’s response to injury.
“This new research shows for the first time that having behavioral problems in childhood can put children on the path to ill health much earlier than we previously realized,” said Karestan Koenen, PhD, the study’s senior author and associate professor of epidemiology at Columbia. “The important message for healthcare professionals is that they need to monitor the physical health, as well as the mental health, of children with behavioral problems in order to identify those at risk as early as possible.”