Researchers have uncovered a surprising link between stress experienced in childhood and adolescence and an increased risk of developing cardiometabolic diseases later in life.

Individuals who endure consistently high perceived stress are more prone to high blood pressure, obesity and other cardiometabolic risk factors, according to a study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association.

The study involved the assessment of 276 participants from the Southern California Children's Health Study. Researchers used the Perceived Stress Scale (PSS), a well-established tool for assessing stress perception among participants. The PSS measures the extent to which individuals appraise situations in their lives as stressful.

During early childhood until around the age of 6, PSS was derived from the responses provided by the participants' parents. Later, participants themselves reported their stress levels.

The participants were then grouped into four risk-based groups: consistently high stress, decreasing stress, increasing stress and consistently low stress over time. Their cardiometabolic risk scores were measured using factors such as neck artery thickness, systolic and diastolic blood pressure, weight, percentage of body fat and fat distribution and hemoglobin A1c.

Based on the analysis, researchers noted that higher perceived stress levels were also associated with a higher risk for cardiometabolic health conditions.

"If individuals experienced greater levels of stress from their teenage years into adulthood, they were more likely to have worse vascular health, higher total body fat, more fat around the belly and a higher risk of obesity compared to those who felt less stressed over time," the researchers wrote in a news release.

"In general, higher perceived stress levels were also associated with higher risk for cardiometabolic health conditions. For example, adults who experience higher levels of stress tend to have worse vascular health and higher systolic and diastolic blood pressure," they added.

It is worth noting, however, that the study had a relatively small number of participants — something that can be considered a limitation.

"Understanding the effects of perceived stress starting in childhood is important for preventing, lessening or managing higher cardiometabolic risk factors in young adults," said study author Fangqi Guo from the University of Southern California, Los Angeles.

"Our findings suggest that perceived stress patterns over time have a far-reaching effect on various cardiometabolic measures including fat distribution, vascular health and obesity. This could highlight the importance of stress management as early as adolescence as a health-protective behavior. Health care professionals should consider using the Perceived Stress Scale to evaluate individuals' stress levels during clinic visits. This way, those with higher stress levels can be identified and receive treatment earlier," Guo added.