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Childhood miseries may fade, but the body remembers

Childhood miseries may fade, but the body remembers

Picture of Ryan White
Childhood can cast a long shadow when it comes to health.
Childhood can cast a long shadow when it comes to health.

You may have caught wind last week of the latest study that supports the idea that childhood stress becomes embedded in young bodies, where it can potentially pull on the levers of health for decades afterward.

If you cover or just read about child health, this theme will not strike you as new. Notions of toxic stress and childhood adversity have proliferated in the research literature and news media in recent years, and there’s a growing awareness that young bodies can “store,” “encode” or “embed” youthful traumas, resulting in elevated rates of chronic disease and shortened lifespans. Write enough of these stories, and you begin to think of childhood as a long field pockmarked with trauma’s buried landmines, with the detonations deferred until adulthood.

But this most recent study, published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, is worth lingering over, both because of the size of the data sample and because of the surprising nature of some of its findings. It’s also interesting because this study focuses on cardiometabolic health, rather than, say, brain development. “Cardiovascular medicine has increasingly recognized the childhood origins of adult disease,” said cardiologist Valentin Fuster in his audio commentary on the study.

For this newest study, researchers at Harvard and UC San Francisco analyzed records from more than 6,700 participants drawn from the 1958 British Birth Cohort Study, a longitudinal study that followed nearly 17,000 individuals, born in a single week that year, for decades afterward. At regular intervals starting at age 7, researchers measured participants’ levels of psychological distress (early assessments were done by the kids’ teachers). When members of the cohort turned 45, measures of immune, cardiovascular and metabolic health were gathered.

When investigators compared these health indicators with the psychological data amassed over the intervening years, they found that “psychological distress” at any point in life was linked to higher risk of cardiometabolic disease. As you might guess, individuals who experienced ongoing distress during both childhood and adulthood had the greatest risk of cardiometabolic disease. But the more interesting finding was that those who experienced such distress during childhood still had an elevated risk of disease — even if the stress had gone away by the time they were adults. The body, it would seem, still remembered in medically meaningful ways.

“This is the first study to suggest that even if distress appears to remit by adulthood, heightened risk of cardiometabolic disease remains,” the authors concluded.

That’s a sobering finding, and will likely give pause to those hopeful that with the right therapies, the biological effects of childhood trauma or distress can be swiftly reversed. It should also give added urgency to early prevention and screening programs. The ideal trauma is obviously the one that never takes place.

And yet so much is still unknown here. Researchers are still unraveling the switches and pathways by which horrible childhood ordeals or sustained stress become embedded in the body. It’s conceivable that with scientific gains in our understanding of how this happens, we’ll also improve our ability to lessen or undo the perverse influence such experiences have on long-term health.

[Photo by Grant Williamson via Flickr.]


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