The results suggest that early-life stress may raise
the risk of heart disease later on by affecting blood vessel
function and blood pressure in ways that can be detected during
young adulthood, the authors say.
“We have translated ideas that we had from animal research and found
that it’s true in humans,” Jennifer Pollock told Reuters Health.
Pollock, part of the research team, co-directs cardio-renal
physiology and medicine in the nephrology division at the University
of Alabama at Birmingham.
She and her colleagues looked for elevations in blood pressure and
other indicators of how well blood vessels constrict or relax, as
well as signs of stiffness in blood vessel walls.
“All of this was highly correlated with people who have more of
these stresses during childhood than the people who had no stressors
in childhood,” she said.
Pollock said that household dysfunction was the most common adverse
event, followed by neglect and abuse.
For their study, which was published in the journal Hypertension,
Pollock and her colleagues analyzed data on 221 healthy adolescents
and young adults recruited for a study of cardiovascular risk
factors that started in 1989.
The research team looked at markers of blood vessel health including
blood pressure, the heart’s output of blood, characteristics of the
pulse and levels of a substance called endothelin-1, a protein that
constricts blood vessels and increases blood pressure.
They calculated adverse childhood event (ACE) scores based on a
questionnaire answered when the participants were about 21 years
old. Those who reported one traumatic event were classified as
having mild ACE and those with two or more traumatic events were
classified as moderate or severe ACE.
The researchers found that participants who had one traumatic event
in childhood had plasma endothelin-1 levels that were an average of
18 percent higher than those who had reported no traumatic events,
and those who had two or more traumatic childhood events had levels
that were 24 percent higher.
Participants with two or more adverse events also had elevated
measures of blood pressure and blood vessel stiffness.
The study didn’t follow up to see if those young people ended up
having more heart attacks, strokes or other illnesses. And it cannot
prove that the early-life traumas were the cause of the
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Nonetheless, Pollock said that in the future she’d
like to determine if behavioral therapies may change the course of
the cardiovascular risk factors in people who have these early life
“Exposure to psychosocial stress triggers a biological response
aimed at improving adaptation to challenges,” said Dr. Andrea Danese,
of the Institute of Psychiatry, King's College London.
“Although the biological responses to stress are vital in the short
term, they may become detrimental when chronically activated,” he
told Reuters Health in an email. “For example, immune mediators
including inflammation proteins can damage blood vessels leading to
atherosclerosis and cardiovascular disease.”
Danese, who was not involved in the new study, said researchers are
increasingly interested in finding ways to reverse such damage to
help individuals who experienced childhood adversity.
“We know little on the topic at present, but once we are able to
confidently point to mechanisms through which child stress is
translated into biological risk for disease, we will be able to
target biological abnormalities before the onset of clinical
symptoms,” he said.
This does not necessarily mean giving children medications, he said.
“In contrast, we can also use this information to see if
psychosocial interventions, such as psychotherapy, could help
remediate the detrimental effects of childhood adversity on physical
health as they often do for mental health.”
Hypertension, online April 28, 2014.
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