Unhappy childhood linked to heart risk in later life

Image caption,
Storing up heart problems?

Emotional behaviour in childhood may be linked with heart disease in middle age, especially in women, research suggests.

A study found being prone to distress at the age of seven was associated with a significantly higher risk of cardiovascular disease in later life.

Conversely children who were better at paying attention and staying focused had reduced heart risk when older.

The US researchers said more work was needed to understand the link.

Their study looked at 377 adults who had taken part in research as children. At seven they had undergone several tests to look at emotional behaviour.

They compared the results from this with a commonly used risk score for cardiovascular disease of participants now in their early 40s.

After controlling for other factors which might influence heart disease risk, they found that high levels of distress at age seven were associated with a 31% increased risk of cardiovascular disease in middle-aged women.

For men with high levels of distress in childhood - which included being easily frustrated and quick to anger - the increased risk of cardiovascular disease was 17%.

For 40-year-olds who had been prone to distress as a child, the chances of having a heart attack or stroke in the next 10 years increased from 3.2% to 4.2% for women and 7.3 to 8.5% for men.


The researchers also looked at positive emotional factors such as having a good attention span and found this was linked with better cardiovascular health, although to a lesser degree.

Other studies have linked adversity in childhood with cardiovascular disease in adults.

And research in adults as linked poor emotional wellbeing with higher levels of cardiovascular disease, the researchers pointed out in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.

Study leader Dr Allison Appleton, said more research would now be needed to work out the biological mechanism that may underpin the finding.

"We know that persistent distress can cause dysregulation of the stress response and that is something we want to look at."

Maureen Talbot, senior cardiac nurse at the British Heart Foundation, said it was already known that a child's health could often have a bearing on their future wellbeing.

But she added that more research was needed before it could be clear that any possible link existed between emotions in childhood and the risk of cardiovascular disease in later life.

"There are positive steps parents can take to protect their child's future heart health.

"What we learn when we're young can often set the tone for our habits later in life, so teaching children about physical activity and a balanced diet is a great place to start."

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