A 45-year long study of nearly 7,000 people born in a single week in Great Britain in 1958 has found that persistent psychological stress in childhood owing to various factors can lead to higher risk of heart disease and diabetes in adulthood.
The researchers found that people with persistent distress throughout their lives had the highest cardio-metabolic risk score relative to participants who reported low levels of distress throughout childhood and adulthood.
"This study supports growing evidence that psychological distress contributes to excess risk of cardiovascular and metabolic disease and that effects may be initiated relatively early in life," explained lead author Ashley Winning from Harvard University's TH Chan School of Public Health.
The study looked at information related to stress and mental health collected about participants in the 1958 British Birth Cohort Study at ages 7, 11, 16, 23, 33 and 42.
Researchers also collected data for nine biological indicators at age 45 to create a score indicating risk for heart disease and diabetes, known as the cardiometabolic risk score, for each.
The estimated risk for cardio-metabolic disease for people with persistent distress through to middle adulthood was also higher than risk commonly observed for people who are overweight in childhood.
"Participants who experienced high distress primarily in childhood and those with persistent distress continued to have significantly higher risk scores even after considering other factors," the authors noted.
While effects of distress in early childhood on higher cardiometabolic risk in adulthood appeared to be somewhat mitigated if distress levels were lower by adulthood, they were not eradicated.
"This highlights the potentially lasting impact of childhood distress on adult physical health," Winning noted.
It is also apparent that adversity in a child's social environment increases the likelihood of developing high levels of distress.
"Thus, 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," Winning advised.
The paper was published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology