Health Issues in Childhood Often Show Up in Adulthood

Physical, mental stress at young age can have lifelong effects, research shows

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TUESDAY, June 2 (HealthDay News) -- Physical and mental health problems in childhood can have lifelong consequences, which means it's important to start health promotion and disease prevention early in life, experts say.

"A scientific consensus is emerging that the origins of adult disease are often found among developmental and biological disruptions occurring during the early years of life," according to Dr. Jack P. Shonkoff, of Harvard University, and colleagues.

Health promotion and disease prevention efforts should begin in the early years of life, Shonkoff's team recommends in an article in the June 3 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, a themed issue on child and adolescent health.

"Investigators have postulated that early experience can affect adult health in at least two ways -- by accumulating damage over time or by the biological embedding of adversities during sensitive developmental periods. In both cases, there can be a lag of many years, even decades, before early adverse experiences are expressed in the form of illness."

In a cumulative process, chronic diseases occur as the result of repeated physical and mental stress, the study authors noted in a news release from the journal.

"Strong associations have been shown between retrospective adult reports of increasing numbers of traumatic childhood events with greater prevalence of a wide array of health impairments including coronary artery disease, chronic pulmonary disease, cancer, alcoholism, depression and drug abuse, as well as overlapping mental health problems, teen pregnancies, and cardiovascular risk factors such as obesity, physical inactivity and smoking," Shonkoff and colleagues wrote.

Biological embedding of risk factors for poor health can occur during sensitive periods when a child's developing brain is more receptive to a variety of input, both positive and negative, the findings show.

"Early experiences of child maltreatment and poverty have been associated with heightened immune responses in adulthood that are known risk factors for the development of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, asthma and chronic lung disease," the study authors wrote.

More information

The American Academy of Family Physicians offers health tips for families.

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