Early life stress increases risk of heart disease later in life: Studies show stress affects immune response, inflammation, blood pressure

Experiencing stress early in life may affect the kidneys’ immune response and increase the risk of heart disease later in life, according to a recent study published in the American Journal of Physiology — Renal Physiology. Past studies have revealed that individuals who experienced trauma during their childhood have a higher risk of developing high blood pressure, which can later lead to heart disease. In addition, other studies indicate that stress in early life may increase the risk of inflammation.

The results were discovered by a team of researchers from the University of Alabama at Birmingham and the University of Kentucky after they carried out a study on the relationship between early life stress (ELS) and its effects on the immune response of kidneys. In the study, they hypothesized that early life stress influences the immune response in adulthood. They particularly focused on the kidneys as they were responsible for regulating long-term blood pressure.

As part of the study, they examined the kidneys of two groups of rats: One group were separated from their mothers right after birth, while the other was the control group and were not separated from their mothers soon after birth. The findings of the study revealed that male rats in the separated group had higher concentrations of T-cells, a type of white blood cell essential for human immunity, and neutrophils, an immune cell that functions as the body’s first line of defense in an infection, in comparison with the control group. These two are primary components of the immune system; an increase in the amount of these cells can be a risk of inflammation. Moreover, the kidneys of the separated rats had a rise in biomarkers, pointing out signs of inflammation and promoting immune responses.

Researchers say that the behavior shown by the separated group gives a view of how cardiovascular disease can develop at an early age and how it can develop more aggressively later in life. (Related: Feeling stressed? Perceived stress can increase the risk of developing heart disease.)

Stress in childhood and how parents can help

Childhood stress can happen when a child is placed in a position that he has to adapt or change. While childhood stress can happen in positive situations (like the start a new activity), it is usually noted in negative situations like illness of death in the family. Small amounts of stress can be good, but too much of it can affect the way a child thinks, acts, and feels.

As they grow up, children will learn how to react to stress. Some examples of stressors for children include worrying about schoolwork or grades, managing responsibilities —  such as those in school or sports, problems with friends, bullying or instances of peer pressure, or moving or changing schools –even dealing with housing problems or homelessness.

Other stressors may include having negative thoughts about themselves, going through physical changes, seeing parents go through a divorce or separation, financial problems in the family, and living in an unsafe home or community. A child undergoing any of these stressors may show physical symptoms such as a decreased appetite, nightmares, or a headache; and behavioral symptoms like anxiety, worry, clinging or the unwillingness to let go, and aggressive or stubborn behavior.

Parents can help their children respond to stress. One way is to provide a safe, secure, and dependable home. Family gatherings, such as having a family dinner or movie night, can help relieve or prevent stress. In addition, spending time and listening to children without being critical of them is crucial. Help them understand and solve what is upsetting to them. Another way is building self-worth by using encouragement, affection, or reward. Furthermore, allow the child to have the opportunity to make choices and have some control over his or her life. In this way, the child may respond to stress better as they will feel that they have a control over a situation.

Read more stories on the risk factors for heart disease at Heart.news.

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