Sep. 22 2015

What Are the Health Consequences of a Stressful Childhood?

Shakira Suglia takes the long view on childhood adversity and cardiovascular health in Puerto Rican youth

It’s no secret that childhood shapes who we become as adults—not only who we are, but how healthy we are. But how specifically do early life stressors such as discrimination or lack of sleep apply to heart health, especially for a minority population with high rates of cardiovascular disease?  

With a new five-year, $3.8 million grant from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, Shakira Suglia, assistant professor of Epidemiology at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, is hoping to answer these questions in a study of young Puerto Rican adults from the South Bronx and San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Puerto Ricans, especially Puerto Rican women, are the highest risk group for heart disease among Hispanics. As Suglia, who was born and raised in Puerto Rico, points out, “cardiovascular disease starts early. You can actually look at the early markers and if you see them sooner, hopefully you can prevent it.”

Childhood adversity—factors like drug use in the home, child abuse and neglect, domestic violence, parental mental health status, or whether a father or mother was incarcerated—has already been found to have negative effects on long-term health. But many previous studies relied heavily on participants reporting on their childhood experiences retrospectively as adults. This isn’t the case with Suglia’s research. As part of the ongoing Boricua Youth Study, researchers first collected data between 2000-2004, when the children were between the ages of 5 and 13 years old. Fifteen years after the study began, Suglia and her team are returning to the children—now young adults in their twenties—to ask similar questions and perform a physical exam.

While the two groups of study participants are ethnically homogenous, they have grown up in vastly different contexts. In the South Bronx, these young Puerto Ricans have grown up as a minority population in the poorest congressional district in the United States. In San Juan, they’ve been the majority population, but still may have faced discrimination based on the color of their skin. On top of interviewing the youth on things like diet, sleep, life experiences, stressors, and substance use, Suglia will ask questions covering experiences and perceptions of discrimination and racism. Suglia and colleagues will also focus on positive elements that may serve as potential buffers to prevent cardiovascular disease: a strong sense of family, religious life, and acculturation.

And she hopes, this series of surveys will not be the last interaction with study participants. “Ten, twenty years down the road,” says Suglia,” I would love to reach out to them again and do an assessment of their cardiovascular health overall, measure the changes over the long-term.”