Troubled Childhood Increases Heart Disease Risk as Adult

The risk of an individual suffering from heart disease might be increased by a bad childhood.

An epidemiological study of over 3,500 people suggests that the risk of an individual suffering from coronary heart disease (CHD) might be increased by a bad childhood.

“We often think about how the early family psychosocial environment influences the mental health of kids,” reported Eric Loucks, assistant professor of epidemiology in the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University. “The fact that it may be important for chronic diseases, like heart disease, hasn’t been thought of as much.”

The recently published examination of the health records and childhood descriptions of 3,554 adults shows a connection between particular types of childhood abuse and a moderately heightened risk of CHD in middle age.

“In cardiovascular disease research right now there’s starting to be more and more interest in early life determinants of heart disease,” Loucks said. “That’s what this paper found. That early life family psychosocial environment had a small but significant association with ten-year risk for coronary heart disease.”

The researchers measured the adversity of the participant’s childhood—whether they suffered from physical or verbal abuse, or gestures of love and support—through the use of a seven-question survey. For every extra point a participant registered on a twenty-one-point “risky family score,” the risk of CHD between the ages of forty and fifty rose 1%.

For example, if a man had a childhood that registered five points lower on the scale than the average man in the study, his CHD risk over the next ten years would be 5.36% in comparison to the normal man’s 5.1% risk.

Such data was measured alongside the Framingham risk algorithm, which uses physiological indicators to determine CHD risk over the next ten years.

The researchers found that men and women who had higher risky family scores had higher CHD risk than participants who had lower risky family scores but were similar otherwise.

Women in the lowest risky family quartile had a ten-year CHD risk of 1.6%, while women in the highest quartile had a CHD risk of 1.8%. For men, the difference between the lowest quartile and the highest was 4.8% versus 5.5%.

The researchers also found that gender played a role in the correlation between a bad childhood and heart disease. For instance, a woman’s risk was elevated by:

  • Low education levels
  • Low income
  • Depressive symptoms
  • Anger
  • Verbal mistreatment
  • Physical abuse
  • Smoking
  • Poor parental monitoring
  • Poor household organization and management

A man’s risk was heightened by:

  • Low education levels
  • Smoking
  • Neglect
  • Poor monitoring and organization

For men, the researchers found that abuse did not affect the CHD risk as much as neglect did.

“It’s not just the really extreme circumstances, such as abuse and neglect, but also maybe day-to-day things such as parental monitoring that seemed to be important,” Loucks said. “One of the big drivers was smoking. Think of a kid whose parents aren’t monitoring him so much. That could quite easily allow him to try smoking. Smoking is highly addictive, and so can easily continue into adulthood. Smoking is one of the major risk factors for heart disease.”

According to Loucks, more research is necessary to establish how these specific family dynamics could eventually contribute to CHD, but the theory that being raised in a problematic household could result in physical issues shall certainly be of interest to policymakers.

“We have all these programs to help at-risk families and we do that because it could influence kids’ mental health or development,” Loucks stated. “This kind of body of work is suggesting it may also influence their risk for chronic disease. This is one more reason why it’s important to think about helping at-risk kids.”

The study is published in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine.