Tough Childhoods May Contribute to Adult Heart Disease

SATURDAY, Aug. 14 (HealthDay News) — Adults who experienced abuse, poverty, or social isolation in childhood are at increased risk for cardiovascular disease as a result of heightened “reactivity,” warns an expert from the University of Pittsburgh.

“Many diseases first diagnosed in mid-life can be traced back to childhood. Having some bad health habits in your 20’s and 30’s is part of the reason why people get diseases later on. However, it isn’t the whole reason,” Karen A. Matthews, a professor of psychiatry and epidemiology at the University of Pittsburgh, said in an American Psychological Association news release. “The evidence shows that certain reactions to adverse childhood experiences associated with lower socioeconomic status, isolation and negative events can affect the disease process,” she said.

Matthews led a study that followed 212 teens, ages 14 to 16, for three years. The researchers found that teens from poor families were more likely to have early signs of heart disease.

“It seems that parents’ (socioeconomic status) affects young adolescents’ later risk for cardiovascular disease more than younger children and older teenagers,” said Matthews, who was slated to speak on Saturday at the APA’s annual meeting.

“Our data suggests that this age group is more vulnerable to cardiovascular risks if they are exposed to various stressors because of their hormonal changes and their sensitivity to peer rejection, acceptance and how they interpret others’ attitudes towards themselves,” she said.

Matthews cited one New Zealand study that found that children who were socially isolated — regardless of family income — were also at increased risk for cardiovascular disease.

Another study she conducted found that living in an impoverished family can affect a child’s reactions to negative situations and, over time, increase the risk of heart disease.

“Children who have minimal resources both from their families and communities grow up in unpredictable, stressful environments,” she said. “Fewer resources make people more susceptible to negative effects of adversity. One way to adapt is to become hypervigilant to head off potential threats. But the consequence of this is to then interpret events as threatening, even when they are not, and start to mistrust people. Interactions with others then become a source of stress, which can increase arousal, blood pressure, inflammation levels and deplete the body’s reserves. This sets up risk for cardiovascular disease.”

More information

The American Heart Association explains ways you can reduce your risk for heart disease, stroke and heart attack.