EVANSTON, Ill. — No one’s past is perfect, but we all push forward toward a better tomorrow. Some, though, had a tougher past than others. When awful events like childhood neglect or trauma happen, it can take years before that person is able to mentally move on. Now, a new study finds that a dysfunctional or traumatic childhood also may lead to serious heart problems decades down the road.
Researchers at Northwestern University Medicine found that children exposed to high levels of “family environment adversity” were more than 50% more likely to suffer a cardiovascular event, such as a heart attack or stroke, over the span of a 30-year follow up period.
More than 3,600 people took part in the research, which is among the first to examine the relationship between childhood trauma and heart health in adulthood. The study’s authors noted that kids exposed to such events are much more likely to deal with life-long stress and anxiety problems, depression, smoking habits, and a sedentary lifestyle. All of these factors, of course, can lead to a higher BMI, diabetes, high blood pressure, and a host of other health issues.
“This population of adults is much more likely to partake in risky behaviors – for example, using food as a coping mechanism, which can lead to problems with weight and obesity,” says first author Jacob Pierce, a fourth-year medical student at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, in a release. “They also have higher rates of smoking, which has a direct link to cardiovascular disease.”
Pierce believes children who have dealt with these family issues can benefit from therapy that emphasizes the dangers of using food or other substances to deal with stress.
“Early childhood experiences have a lasting effect on adult mental and physical well-being, and a large number of American kids continue to suffer abuse and dysfunction that will leave a toll of health and social functioning issues throughout their lives,” adds senior author Joseph Feinglass, a research professor of medicine and of preventive medicine. “Social and economic support for young children in the United States, which is low by the standards of other developed countries, has the biggest ‘bang for the buck’ of any social program.”
The study’s authors used a prior research project’s data to reach their conclusions. That project had tracked a group of participants from 1985-86 all the way through until 2018 in an effort to determine the relationship between a child’s psychosocial environment and subsequent health and mortality outcomes.
Participants were initially asked a variety of questions such as, “How often did a parent or other adult in the household make you feel that you were loved, supported, and cared for?” or, “How often did a parent or other adult in the household swear at you, insult you, put you down or act in a way that made you feel threatened?”
Interestingly, the single most predictive question among participants was “Did your family know what you were up to as a kid?”
The study is published in the Journal of the American Heart Association.