Being exposed to higher levels of stress during childhood increases the risk of type 2 diabetes and heart disease in adults, according to new research.
The study, conducted by researchers at the Department of Social and Behavioural Sciences at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Bosto, Massachusetts, adds to existing research on the health effects of stress. Previous studies suggest that around 60 per cent of all illnesses are caused primarily by stress.
The researchers analysed data from around 7,000 participants, all of whom were born within the same week. They were followed for an average of 45 years, with information about stress levels and mental health being collected at ages seve, 11, 16, 23, 33, and 42.
When the participants reached the age of 45, the researchers tested them for biological markers that would indicate their risk of type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
The results of the study indicated that participants whose childhoods were more stressful had a higher risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes. Having a less stressful adulthood offset the risk somewhat, but the increased stress during childhood still had an effect.
High stress during adulthood but not childhood did not increase the risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes, once the researchers adjusted for other factors that might increase the risk.
“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,” the authors wrote.
“This highlights the potentially lasting impact of childhood distress on adult physical health.
“[E]arly 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.”
The findings were published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology.

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