Childhood Stress Could Be More Dangerous Than You Think

September 30th 2015

Alex Mierjeski

The stress we experience during childhood—no matter the cause—could have a lasting and detrimental effect on our health later in life, according to new research.

According to a study published this week in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, psychological and emotional stress early on could increase the risk of developing cardiovascular and metabolic diseases in adulthood (think heart disease, diabetes, and stroke). The research sheds light on the overall impact various forms of stress can have on our health, but it suggests that even if distress is mitigated by adulthood, a "heightened risk of cardiometabolic disease remains."

Major finding.

"The most striking and perhaps sobering finding in our study is that high levels of childhood distress predicted heightened adult disease risk, even when there was no evidence that these high levels of distress persisted into adulthood," Ashley Winning, an author of the study and a postdoctoral research fellow at Harvard's T.H. Chan School of Public Health, told WebMD.

For the study, researchers from the Social and Behavioral Sciences Department at Harvard's public health school and the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics at the University of California San Fransisco School of Medicine tracked research on British school children dating back to the late 1950s. That study, known as the 1958 Birth Cohort Study, followed thousands of British children born during the same week, collecting wide-ranging teacher evaluations and personal assessments on stress levels from the ages of 7 to 42. At the age of 45, those subjects were given assessments to track things like immune function, cholesterol, blood pressure, and heart rate.

Related: What Stress Does To Your Brain

Researchers relied on 6,714 participants from the 1958 study to measure how stress might affect chronic diseases later in life, finding that those who had experienced long-term stress were most at risk, but also that isolated stress early on or in adulthood led to higher risks as well. The study's findings suggest a correlation between stressors and chronic diseases—not a causation. Winning told WebMD that other factors typically associated with high stress, like smoking and physical inactivity, also likely contribute to higher health risks.

More psychological distress leads to higher risks of chronic diseases

Still, the findings dovetail with other research connecting early stress with higher health risks later in life. A study last year, for example, found that early stress had negative impacts on blood vessel function and blood pressure in 221 otherwise healthy adolescents. It doesn't necessarily take hard data to tell us that stress can have negative impacts on our health, something the researchers noted. "Not surprisingly, those with persistent distress—so, both in childhood and adulthood—had the highest risk," Winning told NPR. But the new research sheds light on the importance of targeting problems early on.

"Focusing on early emotional development and helping children learn to regulate emotions effectively may be an important target for disease prevention and health promotion efforts," Winning said..