Childhood adversity tied to downstream cardiovascular risk

Children and adolescents who are abused, bullied, experience economic hardship or witness violence are more likely to develop cardiovascular disease as adults, according to scientific statement published Dec. 18 in Circulation.

The authors analyzed existing research linking adverse childhood experiences to a greater likelihood of developing obesity, high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes earlier than people who didn’t face similar obstacles as children or teenagers. They included a range of experiences “that threaten the child’s bodily, familial, or social safety or security.”

About 59 percent of the U.S. adult population has experienced at least one adverse childhood event, recent data suggests.

“The real tragedy is that children are exposed to these traumatic experiences in the first place,” Shakira Suglia, ScD, the writing group chair and an associate professor of epidemiology at Emory University in Atlanta, said in a press release. “We are talking about children and teens experiencing physical and sexual abuse and witnessing violence. Sadly, the negative consequences of experiencing these events does not end when the experience ends, it lasts many years after exposure.”

Unhealthy reactions to stress, such as overeating, smoking or not getting enough sleep, could be reasons for this downstream cardiovascular risk, Suglia and colleagues wrote. Also, the development of mood or anxiety disorders—which could be triggered by adverse events—has been linked to poor eating habits and not getting recommended sleep or exercise. And finally, long-term high levels of stress could affect the regulatory systems of the body.

“Despite a lack of objective agreement on what subjectively qualifies as exposure to childhood adversity and a dearth of prospective studies, substantial evidence documents an association between childhood adversity and cardiometabolic outcomes across the life course,” Suglia et al. wrote.

“Future studies that focus on mechanisms, resiliency, and vulnerability factors would further strengthen the evidence and provide much-needed information on targets for effective interventions. Given that childhood adversities affect cardiometabolic health and multiple health domains across the life course, interventions that ameliorate these initial upstream exposures may be more appropriate than interventions remediating downstream cardiovascular disease risk factor effects later in life.”