Children and teens who are abused, bullied, suffer the loss of a loved one, or who face other types of traumas are at greater risk of developing cardiovascular disease in adulthood, according to new findings published in Circulation, the journal of the American Heart Association.
The findings are based on a review of existing studies published in peer-reviewed medical journals that have shown a strong link between traumatic experiences in childhood and adolescence and a greater chance of developing risk factors such as obesity, high blood pressure, and type II diabetes at an earlier age than those who were trauma-free.
In turn, these risk factors lead to greater odds of developing heart and blood vessel diseases and other conditions in adulthood, such as coronary artery disease, heart attacks, strokes, high blood pressure, obesity, and type II diabetes.
According to research, nearly 60 percent of Americans report an adverse event during childhood.
Adversity is defined as anything children perceive as a threat to their physical safety or that jeopardizes their family or social structure. This includes emotional, physical or sexual abuse, neglect, bullying by peers, violence at home, parental divorce, separation or death, parental substance abuse, living in a neighborhood with high crime rates, homelessness, discrimination, poverty, and the loss of a relative or another loved one.
“The real tragedy is that children are exposed to these traumatic experiences in the first place,” said Shakira Suglia, Sc.D., the writing group chair for the statement and an associate professor of epidemiology at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia.
“We are talking about children and teens experiencing physical and sexual abuse and witnessing violence. Sadly, the negative consequences of experiencing these events does not end when the experience ends, it lasts many years after exposure.”
“Ideally, we want to prevent these things from happening in the first place as well as preventing the health consequences that arise from having these experiences.”
Exactly how adversity fuels cardiovascular and metabolic problems remains unclear, but the current evidence suggests that behavioral, mental health, and biological reactions to increased stress all play a role.
For example, unhealthy reactions to stress, such as smoking or overeating, may underlie the higher risk for cardiovascular disease and diabetes among this group. In addition, recurrent and chronic childhood stress is known to increase the risk of depression, anxiety, and mood disorders among children and teens, which in turn lead to unhealthy behaviors that often lead to cardiovascular and metabolic illnesses.
Furthermore, chronically high stress levels or repeated spikes could disrupt normal immune, metabolic, nervous and endocrine development and function.
Not all children who grow up facing adversity develop diseases of the heart and blood vessels, however. This suggests the existence of a range of biological, environmental, cultural, and social factors that may help reduce risk and prevent disease development. Further research to better understand these factors may one day lead to the development of preventive strategies, the researchers note.
Currently, there are no national guidelines for healthcare providers to monitor children and teens for adversity.
“We need more research to better understand how to help people who have had adversity in childhood prevent or delay the development of heart and blood vessel diseases.”
The researchers warn that the findings are observational and do not necessarily prove cause and effect. However, they add, the rapidly growing body of research is an important indicator that childhood adversity is a potent and critical modulator of disease and health.
Source: American Heart Association