Your Health Checkup: Early Life Trauma and Cardiovascular Disease

Can exposure to childhood stressors raise your risk of having a heart attack?

Two parents arguing while their anxious child hugs a stuffed doll.
(fizkes / Shutterstock)

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“Your Health Checkup” is our online column by Dr. Douglas Zipes, an internationally acclaimed cardiologist, professor, author, inventor, and authority on pacing and electrophysiology. Dr. Zipes is also a contributor to The Saturday Evening Post print magazine. Subscribe to receive thoughtful articles, new fiction, health and wellness advice, and gems from our archive. 

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In the novel I am presently writing (working title: Ari’s Spoon) I make the point that “…hurt flesh heals rapidly when you’re eight years old, emotional trauma does not. It leaves footprints forever shaping the person you become.”

That the statement is not just a figment of my novelist’s imagination but has scientific credibility. For example, childhood violence and workplace bullying are known to be bad for your heart via psychological stress.

A recent study of 300 patients (mean age of 51; 2/3 African American; 50 percent women) tested whether young adults with a history of a heart attack had experienced a greater burden of psychosocial adversity. They sought to answer the question whether exposure to early-life stressors raised the risk of having an adverse cardiovascular outcome (such as a heart attack), possibly by increasing inflammation, a known contributor to heart attacks and strokes.

The researchers found that those individuals with a higher stress score, based on a standardized reporting form that the participants filled out, had higher inflammatory markers in their blood and more than two-fold increase in the risk of experiencing an adverse outcome affecting their heart and blood vessels. This finding is consistent with another study that found early life trauma occurring before age 18 was linked with a subsequent increased cardiovascular risk.

Sex is also a determinant of outcome. Interestingly, women have greater stress-related behavior linked with cardiovascular disease than do men. They exhibit double the rates of mental disorders such as depression and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and have higher rates of exposure to adversity early in life.

The impact of acquired stress on behavior apparently can be inherited by future generations. It does so by leaving its mark, not on the genes directly, but by affecting how the gene works and how it assembles various proteins that can alter health and behavior. Therefore, if the impact of such traumatic events can be inherited, it might be operative in children and grandchildren of survivors of traumatic events such as the Holocaust, 9/11, and the present pandemic, COVID-19.

It is possible that COVID-19 is not only responsible presently for one American death each minute but may be a cause of early heart attacks in the future.

Featured image: fizkes / Shutterstock

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  1. I find epigenetics, the topic which the doctor concluded his article with, absolutely fascinating. And I was back and forth emailing with a friend about childhood trauma and its later life effects on health just last night. This should have been evident to humanity within three generations of The Mistake in the Garden of Eden, and I think more thoughtful people have always sensed it. In recent years, the ACE study has seemed to be conclusive about the matter.

    Leave it to us Americans, though, to be oblivious to the obvious. We love to prattle about resilience, but our Culture of Tough blinds us to just how fragile human beings can be.


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