(Reuters Health) - Kids who live in a stress-free environment may grow up to be adults with a lower risk of heart attacks than their peers who experience social, emotional or financial difficulties during childhood, a Finnish study suggests.
Researchers assessed psychosocial factors in 311 kids at age 12 and 18. Then, at age 28, they looked for coronary artery calcification.
The adults who had high psychosocial wellbeing as kids were 15% less likely to have calcium deposits clogging their arteries as adults, the study found.
"This study suggests that childhood psychosocial factors may have long-term consequences on cardiovascular health," lead study author Dr. Markus Juonala of the University of Turku in Finland said by email.
To understand the connection between how kids feel growing up and how their arteries look decades later, Juonala and colleagues analyzed data gathered from 1980 to 2008 as part of the Cardiovascular Risk in Young Finns Study.
Among other things, this study measured psychosocial wellbeing by looking at family income and education levels, parents' job status, parents' mental health and history of smoking or substance abuse, parents' weight and exercise habits, stressful events such as divorce, death or moves, as well as the child's level of aggressive or anti-social behaviors and ability to interact with other people.
In addition, researchers analyzed results from computed tomography (CT) scans assessing coronary artery calcification. Overall, 55 participants, or about 18%, had at least some calcification in their arteries, researchers report in JAMA Pediatrics, March 14.
Among this group with calcification, 28 participants had low levels of buildup, 20 had moderate amounts of calcium and 7 had substantial deposits, the study found.
Even after accounting for adult circumstances like psychosocial factors and risk factors for heart disease like obesity, smoking, hypertension and elevated cholesterol, the research team still found well-being during childhood was associated with reduced coronary artery calcification in adulthood.
The study is observational and doesn't prove childhood stress causes clogged arteries or heart attacks, only that the two things are related, the authors note.
It's possible, however, that stress during childhood might trigger changes in metabolic functioning and inflammation that later contribute to calcium deposits in the arteries, the researchers point out.
It's also possible that happier kids may develop healthier habits like better diets and more rigorous exercise routines that help keep arteries unclogged and lower their risk of heart disease later in life.
"The take-home message for parents is to understand that stress in childhood may have many adverse effects and that they should help their children avoid stress," said Dr. Stephen Daniels, a researcher at the University of Colorado School of Medicine and pediatrician-in-chief at Children's Hospital Colorado.
Parents may not always be able to eliminate stress, however, particularly the stress that can come from environmental factors like lower socioeconomic status, Daniels, who wasn't involved in the study, added by email.
When children grow up with stress, they can still take charge of their health as adults to lower their risk of heart disease, Daniels noted.
"For an adult who had a stressful childhood, the best approach is to be aware of their cardiovascular risk status and to reduce their risk by improving diet and physical activity and avoiding cigarette smoking," Daniels added. "Where risk factors exist, such as high blood pressure, they should be appropriately treated."