A high stress childhood may increase risk of diabetes in adult life

by Barbara Hewitt on October 2, 2015

Children who experience high levels of stress may be at greater risk of diabetes and heart disease later in life, according to a new study.

It is well established that stress can have negative implications for health but less clear whether stress experienced early in life can have an impact in adulthood. With this in mind, scientists from the Department of Social and Behavioural Sciences at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston, US, decided to analyse data of almost 7,000 people who were part of the 1958 British Birth Cohort Study.

childDIABETES200All 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 seven, 11, 16, 23, 33 and 42 years.

In addition, 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.

The analysis found 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.

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.

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.

“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,” the study report said.

Lead author Ashley Winning, said 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,” said Winning.


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