Childhood Experiences Can Affect Cardiovascular Health in Adulthood

By Stephen T. Sinatra, M.D., F.A.C.C., F.A.C.N., C.N.S., C.B.T.

A Finnish study has found an association between favorable psychosocial factors in youth and cardiovascular health in adulthood. The researchers said their findings were “dose-responsive,” meaning that the more favorable experiences that youngsters have, the better their cardiovascular health in adulthood. Psychosocial factors were described as parental health behaviors, stressful events, self-regulation and social adjustment of the child, as well as socioeconomic and emotional factors.

The purpose of the study, published in a 2015 issue of the journal Circulation,was to examine whether the accumulation of psychosocial factors might positively influence the development of healthy cardiovascular outcomes for which there has been little research. To accomplish this, the researchers randomly selected 477 men and 612 women and analyzed health questionnaires they filled out in 2007 as adults, and those filled out by their parents in 1980.

  My Viewpoint: Looking at experiences in childhood is instructive because, as is well known, cardiovascular diseases are rooted in early life when social determinants of adult health start accumulating. In my clinical experience I often treated the adult fallout from stressful and negative experiences that began piling up in youth. As I wrote in my 1998 book, Heartbreak & Heart Disease, “it is the repressed experience of early childhood heartbreak that sets the stage for heart disease” and also leads “to an inability to open the heart to loving connections.”
 What This Means to You: A dysfunctional childhood beset with experiences such as abuse, divorce and loss of a parent, and lack of parental giving and love can lead to a domino effect of disturbed breathing patterns, thickening of the blood, a postural rigidity we call “armoring of the chest,” and fear to receive and give love. Stress, in other words, can trigger emotional problems and impair critical coronary blood flow to the heart in the future. Such are the common origins of heart disease that cardiologists treat.
 My Recommendation: Obviously, positive experiences on the home front are vital for healthy emotional and physical development. This is where healthy parenting bears fruit, both immediately and years later. As I wrote in my book, “the family unit is one in which a child gets encouragement to explore who he or she is within safe and appropriate boundaries. They are guided and supported…cherished and nurtured.” Such familial “treatment” is one overlooked factor that can prevent the need for medical treatment in adulthood.
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