Lack of exercise, poor diet, obesity, smoking and high blood pressure are some of the known factors that lead to heart attacks down the road. But does a toxic childhood environment lead to heart disease?
With Project Grant funding from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) announced this week, a Brock University-led research team is studying the relationship between early indicators of cardiovascular disease in young adults and adverse childhood experiences such as maltreatment, dysfunctional family life, severe bullying and other traumas.
Professor of Health Sciences Terrance Wade says his six-member group is breaking new ground.
“We’re finding that traditional factors for cardiovascular disease, such as lifestyle and behaviours, are not explaining this relationship,” says Wade. “We’re thinking it’s more of a link between young adults’ psychosocial mechanisms and their physiologies.”
The research builds on earlier studies that measured blood pressure, heart rate and other heart-related indicators in a group of 552 children aged 10 to 14 years old. Researchers also gathered information on the children’s lifestyles, behaviours and other psychosocial measures.
To date, 76 of these participants have had their heart health re-measured in the last year now that they are 18 years of age and older.
Preliminary results showed that young people who experienced more adverse childhood events had arteries that were more rigid and less able to react to blood pressure changes than young people whose childhoods were more stable.
The results also showed increased markers of inflammation in the blood of young adults who had adverse childhoods.
This latest CIHR award will enable the researchers to expand the number of participants from the pilot study to take a close look at how both inflammation and psychosocial factors such as self-esteem, resilience, depression, anxiety and others lay the groundwork for pre-clinical indicators of heart disease.
“We’re looking at whether chronic inflammation states might be induced by adverse experiences early in life and how that might set the stage for the kinds of physiological changes that can result in cardiovascular-related problems,” says team member Adam MacNeil, Assistant Professor of Health Sciences.
“The findings from this research will provide valuable information as to the detrimental impact that adverse childhood experiences have on cardiovascular health,” says Professor of Health Sciences Deborah O’Leary, who is co-leading the study and will be measuring blood pressure, blood flow and other aspects of the cardiovascular system.
Associate Professor of Child and Youth Studies Danielle Sirianni Molnar says she is excited that the transdisciplinary group will “use multiple methods and draw on expertise from diverse fields of study that reflects the biopsychosocial model of health.”
Other team members include John Cairney from the University of Toronto and Jennifer McGrath from Concordia University.
The team’s research, “How Do Negative Childhood Experiences Influence Cardiovascular Health Among Young Adults?” is one of two initiatives CIHR awarded to Brock University for a total of $960,076 in funding.
Assistant Professor of Health Sciences Karen Patte also received Project Grant funding for her work on youth mental health.
“CIHR’s investment in these two research projects shows how Brock researchers are making a difference in the world around them,” says Brock Vice-President, Research Tim Kenyon. “Brock research team leaders and members, along with their colleagues at other institutions, are providing insight into some of the most urgent and profound health challenges confronting our youth.”
With a previous CIHR grant, Patte and her team developed and tested mental health tools for a larger project, the COMPASS system, headed by Scott Leatherdale at the University of Waterloo. The tools were incorporated into the COMPASS study in the 2017-18 school year, collecting mental health data from more than 70,000 Grade 9 through 12 students in 100 secondary schools in Ontario, Alberta, Quebec, British Columbia and Nunavut.
In the newly funded project titled “Addressing Youth Mental Health in the COMPASS System,” Patte and the research team will continue to follow students and schools for three additional years, providing data on youth mental health and relevant school programs, policies and resources.
“Despite greater attention, we still know little about what works for the prevention of mental illness and the promotion of mental health and resiliency, nor how different contexts impact the effectiveness of interventions” Patte says.
By embedding the tools within COMPASS, the team will also be able to study how mental health relates to students’ substance use, physical activity, screen time, diet, bullying, academic achievement and the other areas addressed in the larger project.
“We then feed this information back into schools for the continual improvement of youth mental health and schools’ ability to support their students,” says Patte.
CIHR’s Project Grant program is designed to capture ideas with the greatest potential to advance health-related fundamental or applied knowledge, health research, healthcare, health systems and health outcomes.