Learning how to cope with adversity and the stress that accompanies it is an important part of any child’s healthy development. Oftentimes, children who don’t learn to handle a lot of stress end up harming their health, and a new study has found a link between a stressful childhood and a lifetime of heart disease, obesity, and type 2 diabetes. Authors of the study, published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, believe the findings could improve treatment outcomes for adults by addressing childhood stressors first.

"When considering our patients in this broader social context, telling them to lose weight, stop smoking, [or] eat a better diet without addressing the underlying stress or distress that may be fueling unhealthy behaviors may be counterproductive," said E. Alison Holman, a researcher at the University of California, Irvine, in an accompanying editorial about the study. "By 'advising' or 'directing' our patients to change their behaviors, we undermine their trust in us and may exacerbate their distress, especially if they feel stuck or unable to make the recommended changes."

The research team studied nearly 7,000 people born during the same week in 1958 and followed them for 45 years. The researchers took blood samples when each participant in the group turned 7, 11, 16, 23, 33, and 42 in order to measure their risk for heart disease and type 2 diabetes. It turned out that those who had a highly stressful childhood, as well as those who experienced high levels of stress from childhood through adulthood, were at a “significantly higher risk” for heart disease and type 2 diabetes than those who experienced high levels of stress only in adulthood or low levels throughout their life.

According to the study’s lead author Ashley Winning, a researcher from Harvard Public Health’s Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences, their results support a growing body of evidence that indicates stress during childhood is responsible for an increased risk for heart and weight problems later on in life.

"It is also increasingly apparent that adversity in a child's social environment increases the likelihood of developing high levels of distress," Winning said. "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."

The journal’s Editor-in-Chief Dr. Valentin Fuster said the findings not only reveal how impactful stress can be on an adult’s health, but how it can change a child’s health for the rest of his life. Tending to a patient’s obesity, heart disease, high cholesterol, or lack of exercise may be useless if the underlying psychological factors that contribute to their condition isn’t addressed first.

Source: Winning A, et al. Journal of the American College of Cardiology. 2015.