In Finland, kids who have a "stable, healthy" childhood grow up to have better heart health as adults.
In a long-term study of more than 1,000 men and women, those who had a higher socio-economic status, positive emotional factors, better parental health behaviours, fewer stressful events and better social adjustment from age three to 18 had more 'ideal cardiovascular heath' 27 years later, well into adulthood.
The idea that psychosocial factors are associated with health outcomes isn't new. But this study shows that such factors can predict heart health even decades later. It also shows that multiple factors add together to influence heart health, and that a child's impulse control and ability to get along with others are important, coauthor Marko Elovainio of the University of Helsinki told Reuters Health by email.
The Young Finns study included a random selection of kids who were between age three and 18 in 1980. They were reassessed in 2007 between age 30 and 45.
To measure the kids' psychosocial upbringing, researchers noted their parents' education level, occupation, income, mental disorder diagnoses, alcohol use, smoking and alcohol use and general life satisfaction, among other measures.
Researchers also asked parents how often kids had had to change residence or change schools, deal with a death or serious disease in the family. Parents also provided information on how well the child was able to control him or herself and how well-adjusted the child seemed.
The researchers compared the childhood data to adult 'ideal cardiovascular health,' an index developed by the American Heart Association which includes a healthy body mass index, moderate physical activity, healthy diet, not smoking, and healthy levels of blood pressure, cholesterol and fasting blood sugar.
The average adult had two to three of those seven 'ideal cardiovascular health' points.
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Childhood self-control important for adult heart health
The more positive psychosocial factors the kids had in 1980, the more heart health points they tended to have as adults, even considering their childhood body mass index, blood pressure and cholesterol.
Childhood self-control and parental education level and income were the strongest predictors of later heart health, the authors write in Circulation. Having as many positive psychosocial factors as possible in childhood was associated with a 12 to 14 percent greater likelihood of being a healthy weight and being a non-smoker as an adult.
Children do learn eating habits and general behavioural tendencies at home and at school, Elovainio said. "These habits and tendencies may have long lasting effects during the life-course."
"These chains of positive events ultimately lead to several health outcomes, one of which is cardiac health," he said.
This study was only observational, so it cannot prove that a stable childhood causes hearts to be healthier in adulthood, but it is important that the connection remained despite accounting for childhood weight, blood pressure and cholesterol, he said.
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Children learn behaviours from parents
Positive psychosocial factors in childhood may lead to healthier behaviours as an adult, but may also directly influence our physical health by certain physiological pathways, including stress, although that is still up for debate, he said.
"One simple advice for parents would be 'spend time with your children and remember that children learn from your behaviour and acts'," though parents with more socio-economic resources are in a better position to do this, Elovainio noted.
"One thing that parents can do is to pay attention to mental illness and depression, as there are clear links between depression and cardiovascular health," said Dr. Elaine M. Urbina, director of preventive cardiology at the Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center in Ohio.
With the Affordable Care Act, most Americans should have access to a primary care provider, and getting treatment for parent or child's mental health could both have an effect on later health, Urbina told Reuters Health by phone.
"Socioeconomic factors are hard to tackle, we need better schools, but emotional factors, those are some things that parents hopefully can influence," she said. "Parental health behaviours influence the kids, so if the parent is struggling that stress level is going to be higher in the home as well."
But parents should remember that no single factor is detrimental to child health as children are quite resilient to a fair amount of adversity, Elovainio said.
"Thus, parents should not start thinking that all things must be positive in order to foster healthy human beings," he said.
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