Children who experience high levels of stress may be at greater risk for diabetes and heart disease later in life, according to a new study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology.

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Children who experience high stress levels may be more likely to develop diabetes and heart disease in adulthood, suggests a new study.

It is well established that stress can have negative implications for health; it is the main cause of around 60% of all illness and disease in humans, according to the American Institute of Stress.

However, it was unclear whether stress experienced early in life can impact health risks in adulthood.

To gain a better understanding of this association, lead author Ashley Winning, of the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston, MA, and colleagues analyzed data of almost 7,000 people who were part of the 1958 British Birth Cohort Study.

All participants were born the same week and were followed for an average of 45 years. Information about the subjects' stress and mental health was collected at the ages of 7, 11, 16, 23, 33 and 42 years.

At the age of 45, the participants' blood pressure was checked and blood samples were taken and assessed for nine biological markers. Together, this gave the researchers a cardiometabolic risk score that indicates an individual's risk for diabetes and heart disease.

Findings 'highlight lasting impact of childhood stress on adult health'

The results of the analysis revealed that, compared with individuals who experienced low levels of stress throughout childhood and adulthood, those who experienced high levels of stress during childhood and adulthood had higher cardiometabolic risk scores.

Fast facts about stress
  • Stress has been linked to a 50% increased risk of stroke and a 40% increased risk of heart disease
  • Around 44% of Americans who experience stress lose sleep every night as a result
  • Around 1 in 5 Americans experience "extreme stress," resulting in shaking, heart palpitations and depression.

Learn more about stress

The team found that the cardiometabolic risk for individuals who experienced stress from childhood right through to middle adulthood was higher than that commonly associated with childhood overweight and obesity.

Individuals whose stress levels were highest in childhood and those whose stress levels were highest in adulthood were also found to have higher cardiometabolic risk scores.

When the researchers adjusted the results to account for factors that may influence cardiometabolic risk, such as socioeconomic status, medication use and health behaviors, they found the cardiometabolic risk of individuals who experienced high stress levels in adulthood were no higher than those who experienced low stress levels throughout their lifetime.

However, even after accounting for influential factors, the team found that individuals who experienced high levels of stress in childhood and those with persistent stress from childhood through to adulthood had significantly higher cardiometabolic risk scores than those with low stress levels over their lifetime.

Winning says these findings support increasing evidence that childhood stress influences the risk of diabetes and heart disease later in life.

The authors add:

"While effects of distress in early childhood on higher cardiometabolic risk in adulthood appeared to be somewhat mitigated if distress levels were lower by adulthood, they were not eradicated. This highlights the potentially lasting impact of childhood distress on adult physical health."

Winning notes that there is increasing evidence that adversity in a child's social environment influences the risk of high stress levels. "Thus, early prevention and intervention strategies focused not only on the child but also on his or her social circumstances may be an effective way to reduce the long-lasting harmful effects of distress," she adds.

Earlier this month, Medical News Today reported on a study suggesting that stress during pregnancy may increase the risk for dental caries in offspring.