While we know that education and income has a strong effect on heart health, less is known about the impact of childhood stress on blood pressure later in life. As part of the Georgia Stress and Heart Study, researchers followed children for more than two decades to see how stressful childhood events impact blood pressure.
According to a study recently published in the American Heart Association journal Circulation, researchers followed nearly 400 children for 23 years, tracking their blood pressure and other measures of health. Using questionnaires, researchers also collected information on traumatic experiences during childhood, including childhood abuse, neglect and general household dysfunction. Participants enrolled in the study between the ages of 5 and 16 and were followed until 38 years old.
After analysis, there was no significant difference in average blood pressure among subjects with and without a history of traumatic events. However, the more traumatic experiences a child had, the more quickly their blood pressure increased during early adulthood. By 38 years old, subjects with at least four traumatic experiences had 9.3 mmHg higher systolic blood pressure and 7.6 mmHg higher diastolic blood pressure than those with no history of traumatic events.
This study adds to a growing body of evidence that adversity in childhood can have a negative impact on adult heart health. Stress is a known risk factor for heart disease—the No. 1 killer of men and women in the United States. Findings suggest that when children experience high levels of stress early in life, it may speed up the development of cardiovascular risk factors, such as high blood pressure.
Experts encourage additional research on the topic, as larger studies will help provide useful information about the relationship between childhood experiences and blood pressure. High blood pressure is a major public health issue, affecting roughly one in three Americans. The more we know about preventing high blood pressure, the more we can do to promote better health early in life.