Early life adversity through poverty, social isolation or abuse in childhood is linked to heightened reactivity, which can lead to heart disease later on, scientists have found.
"Many diseases first diagnosed in mid-life can be traced back to childhood," said Karen A. Matthews, a professor of psychiatry and epidemiology at the University of Pittsburgh.
"Having some bad health habits in your 20s and 30s is part of the reason why people get diseases later on. However, it isn't the whole reason. 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 added.
Some data suggest that the accumulation of stress across the lifespan increases risk for disease. But there are critical periods where stress has more of an impact, she said.
"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.
The study was described at the 118th Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association.