What are the childhood origins of adult disease? Might there be certain developmental periods in a child’s life when he or she is particularly vulnerable to stress? And might psychological distress early in life lead to heart and other health problems later in adulthood, even after that stress is gone?
A recent study on early childhood stress published this week in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology doesn’t definitively answer these questions. But it does suggest that a high level of psychological distress in childhood may lead to a heightened risk of disease in adults, even if the stress doesn’t linger on.
The study, led by researchers at the Harvard School of Pubic Health, concludes:
Psychological distress at any point in the life course is associated with higher [cardiovascular and metabolic disease] risk. This is the first study to suggest that even if distress appears to remit by adulthood, heightened risk of cardiometabolic disease remains.
An editorial accompanying the study notes “the possibility that there are sensitive periods in childhood during which some seemingly irreversible physiological, emotional, or behavioral processes are established that affect [cardiometabolic risk]. That is, perhaps there are critical windows of risk linking childhood distress and [cardiometabolic risk] that point to windows of opportunity for intervention.”
The new study was based on an analysis of data from the 1958 British Birth Cohort Study, a longitudinal look at people born in Great Britain during a single week in March 1958. Individuals completed measures of psychological distress and a biomedical survey when they were 45 years old after repeated assessments over the course of their lives, from age 7 to 42.
I asked the new study’s lead researcher, Ashley Winning, a postdoctoral research fellow in the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, some followup questions. Here, edited, are her answers:
RZ: In this study were you able to determine what, exactly, constituted “stress” for these children? Trauma, illness, abuse? If not, might you speculate on what types of stressors might be linked to later heart problems?
AW: High levels of distress in childhood may be the result of early life adversity (such as trauma, illness, abuse, neglect, poverty) and this may be one reason children in these environments are at heightened risk of poor health. However, symptoms of distress may be in response to less dire exposures too — chaotic environments, parental discord, stressful circumstances — normative responses to difficulties that may become chronic in the absence of appropriate adult capacity to help the child learn to navigate these challenges.
It’s also possible symptoms of distress are early signs of an underlying mental disorder in childhood (which may or may not have a hereditary component). We suspect that distress occurs in response to a range of difficult circumstances but what other research has suggested is that ongoing distress is less likely to occur when there is a nurturing adult or supportive environment available. Continue reading