New research suggests that weight gain for women appears to be more influenced by stressful youth experiences than stress during adulthood.
Conversely, the national study led by a Michigan State University (MSU) sociologist found that neither stress in childhood nor adulthood was associated with weight gain for men.
The federally funded study is the first to examine such lifelong consequences of stress on weight change.
Study results are online in the journal Social Science & Medicine.
“These findings add to our understanding of how childhood stress is a more important driver of long-term weight gain than adult stress, and how such processes differ for men and women,” said Dr. Hui Liu, MSU associate professor of sociology and an expert in statistics, population-based health and family science.
Liu and her longtime collaborator, Dr. Debra Umberson from the University of Texas at Austin, analyzed the data from Americans’ Changing Lives, a national survey in which participants were interviewed four times in a 15-year period. The study encompassed 3,617 people (2,259 women and 1,358 men).
Childhood stress was measured on a range of family-related stressors that occurred at age 16 or younger. Stressors included economic hardship, divorce, at least one parent with mental health problem, and never knowing one’s father.
Adult stress included such factors as job loss, death of a significant other, and parental and care-provider stress.
Liu said women who experienced higher levels of childhood stress gained weight more rapidly than women who experienced less childhood stress.
Change in body mass is a process that unfolds throughout life, she noted, and childhood may be a critical period for establishing patterns that have a long-term impact on women’s weight over time.
Apparently, how women and men respond to stress influences downstream body mass index and behaviors. Liu believes women may eat more to cope with stress, whereas men are more likely to engage in less weight-related strategies such as withdrawing or drinking alcohol.
Gender differences in depression may also help explain the difference. Depression is associated with emotion-driven eating and weight gain, and females are more likely than males to be depressed after adolescence.
The findings highlight the need for treatment and policies designed to reduce stress in childhood, Liu said.
“Given the importance of body mass on health and disability,” Liu said, “it’s important that we consider the sex-specific social contexts of early childhood in order to design effective clinical programs that prevent or treat obesity later in life.”