Bullied, abused children and teens at higher risk of heart disease, study says

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Children and teens who experience abuse and adversity, including bullying and neglect, are more likely to develop heart and blood vessel diseases as adults.

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That's according to the American Heart Association, which recently published the scientific statement in the association's journal, "Circulation."

The statement is based on a collective review of existing research documenting a strong association between adverse childhood or adolescent experiences to a greater likelihood of developing multiple risk factors — obesity, high blood pressure and Type 2 diabetes — earlier than children and teens who don't experience adversity.

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Those risk factors, according to the association’s statement, significantly raise the likelihood of developing heart diseases and conditions in adulthood, such as heart attacks, coronary artery disease, strokes, as well as continued high blood pressure, obesity and Type 2 diabetes.

The association defines adversity as “anything children perceive as a threat to their physical safety or that jeopardizes their family or social structure.” This includes:

  • emotional abuse
  • physical abuse
  • sexual abuse
  • neglect
  • bullying by peers
  • violence at home
  • parental divorce
  • separation or death
  • parental substance abuse
  • living in areas with high crime rates
  • homelessness
  • discrimination
  • poverty
  • loss of a relative or loved one

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"Fifty-nine percent of the U.S. population reports at least one adverse childhood experience, with physical, emotional or sexual abuse most common," according to Eduardo Sanchez, chief medical officer for prevention and chief of the centers for health metrics and evaluation at the American Heart Association.

These adverse experiences can worsen diet and lead to overeating, trigger or intensify mental health issues, decrease physical activiy, disrupt sleep and increase smoking, Sanchez noted in a commentary about the association's statement.

When you factor in sex, race/ethnicity and genetics, cardiovascular risk factors are greatly influenced.

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But not all children who experience adversity during childhood develop heart or blood vessel diseases.

A variety of factors, such as biology and environment, could help reduce risk. The association calls for future research to dive deeper into this to better understand preventative strategies.

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The association also hopes for continued research into understanding how to help people with childhood adversity in order to delay or prevent disease risk.

"The real tragedy is that children are exposed to these traumatic experiences in the first place," Emory University researcher Shakira Suglia, the writing group chair for the statement, said in the association's Monday news release. "Ideally, we want to prevent these things from happening in the first place as well as preventing the health consequences that arise from having these experiences."

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It’s important to note that the recent findings don’t necessarily prove cause and effect, but they do suggest there’s more and more research out there that indicates childhood adversity is “a potent and critical modulator of disease and health.”

Currently, the association, through its research, educational programs, advocacy and community intervention efforts, is focusing on those affected by social factors, such as low socio-economic status, low educational attainment, lack of social support and certain residential environments that have been linked with heart disease and its risk factors.

ExploreDownload the new research at circ.ahajournals.org.

Are you caring for someone with heart disease or for someone who has had a heart attack, heart surgery or a stroke? Visit heart.org for caregiver resources and learn about communication, emotional support and more.