Stressed Out as a Kid? You May Be at Higher Risk for Heart Disease and Diabetes

If you needed more proof that stress is bad for you, here it is.

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As adults, it's pretty easy to minimize a child's emotions, especially when it comes to stress: "Chill out, kid, you're not even old enough to know what real stress feels like."

But it might be time to reconsider our reactions, because there could be a link between childhood stress and higher risks of developing heart disease and diabetes in adulthood, according to a September 2015 study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology.

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Researchers from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health analyzed mental health data of nearly 7,000 people born in a single week in 1958 when they turned 7, 11, 16, 23, 33 and 42 (data from the 1958 British Birth Cohort Study). The researchers also collected blood samples from the participants at age 45 in order to calculate their cardiometabolic risk (CMR) scores — a tool that doctors use to determine the likelihood of their patients developing diabetes and heart conditions.

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Using those data, the researchers found that people who had "persistent distress" — think depression, anxiety, hyperactivity, aggression, etc. — throughout both childhood and adulthood had the highest CMR scores of all the participants. People who had high stress levels primarily during childhood or primarily during adulthood also had a higher risk of developing heart disease and diabetes as adults.

Keeping in mind that this study shows association and not causation, these findings highlight how important it is to teach kids about preventing and managing stress rather than writing off their emotions as insignificant.

The major takeaway from this study is how important it is for us to learn to manage emotions at an early age, says Alison Holman, PhD, FNP, the interim director of the program of nursing science at University of California, Irvine.

"Once kids learn how to manage emotions so that they don't make them feel out of control, then they will not feel overwhelmed," she says.

Dr. Holman suggests that parents can help by modeling positive responses to emotions. For example, acknowledging you're angry during a frustrating situation but not going to extremes, such as throwing things or yelling.

And if you were a kid full of angst, move past it. "Don't get caught into the past, live into your future. Work to improve your life now," Holman says. "And if you are having a hard time doing so, find someone who can help."

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