ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
The things that happen to us in childhood - how much stress we experience growing up - could be a predictor of heart disease and metabolic disorders later in life, things like Type 2 diabetes and stroke. NPR's Allison Aubrey reports on a study just published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology.
ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Fifty years ago, researchers in Great Britain began studying a group of children who were just entering preschool. The idea was to gather as complete a picture as possible about everything going on in these kids' lives, from their diets and habits to their emotional health. Researcher Ashley Winning of the Harvard School of Public Health says to get the best measures, especially of mental well-being, a lot of the observations were recorded right in the classroom.
ASHLEY WINNING: It's actually teacher reported, so teachers collected a lot of information assessing the signs and symptoms of distress. So they're checking off, you know, was this child tearful or sad?
AUBREY: Each child was assessed multiple times during their school years, and then as the children become adults, the teachers' assessments of emotional health gave way to their own accounts of the stress in their lives. Then finally, at age 45, some 7,000 of the original participants agreed to undergo a battery of physical tests. Doctors measured their metabolic and cardiovascular health and their immune function. Ashley Winning and her colleagues took all of this data and they analyzed the relationship between stress and disease.
WINNING: Not surprisingly, those with persistent distress - so in both childhood and adulthood - had the highest risk.
AUBREY: But Winning says what she did not expect is this - even the adults who had low stress levels were at significantly higher risk of disease if they'd had bouts of high stress between the ages of 7 and 16. Aric Prather, a psychologist at UCSF, says the results are surprising.
ARIC PRATHER: It was very interesting that early life experiences seem to be such an important predictor as well.
AUBREY: He says it's possible that stress early in life could influence how genes get switched on or off or have some other physiological effects.
PRATHER: There's certainly growing evidence that there may be some biological embedding that takes place, that individuals who experience early life stress, it actually changes something about them biologically that we don't quite understand yet.
AUBREY: Prather says there's a lot to learn, but what's clear is this.
PRATHER: The mind and the body are much more tightly related that we used to believe.
AUBREY: And promoting good emotional health may help prevent disease.
Allison Aubrey, NPR News.
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