Predictable Home Environment Protects Against Development of Heart Disease Risk Factors After Child Abuse

May 17, 2022

Studies have demonstrated that exposure to physical and psychological abuse in childhood is associated with cardiovascular risk factors in adulthood, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol and type 2 diabetes. A new study shows for the first time that well-organized households protect children who have experienced abuse from developing some precursors to heart disease. Findings were published in the Journal of American Heart Association.

“Our results provide a glimmer of hope that nurturing and predictable home environments may attenuate the harmful health impacts of childhood abuse,” said study co-author Nia Heard-Garris, MD, MSc, a pediatrician at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago and Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.

The study found that among Black men and white women with a history of childhood abuse, increased risks of high cholesterol were diminished if they grew up in well-organized households.

“It is encouraging to observe that well-managed households, where family members are involved in children’s lives, help build resilience in kids who have suffered abuse, not only on the emotional and cognitive levels but physically as well,” said Dr. Heard-Garris. “Our findings also suggest that racial disparities that are usually seen in cardiac disease may play a lesser role when children are raised in homes that offer a stable environment, as opposed to chaotic and overly permissive settings.”

Dr. Heard-Garris and colleagues used data from the ongoing Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults (CARDIA) Study. In 1985, the CARDIA longitudinal cohort began following 5,115 African American and white adults to investigate the evolution of coronary heart disease during young adulthood. From 1985-1986, participants aged 18 to 30 years were recruited in four urban areas: Birmingham, Alabama; Chicago, Illinois; Minneapolis, Minnesota, and Oakland, California. As part of the study, childhood environments (i.e., exposure to abuse, nurturing, and well-organized households) were examined retrospectively during the assessment conducted 15 years after the baseline examination. Incidence of cardiovascular risk factors, such as obesity, type 2 diabetes, hypertension and hyperlipidemia outcomes, were examined prospectively from baseline.

“Insights from our study could inform early interventions designed to prevent heart disease after adverse childhood events,” said Dr. Heard-Garris.

Research at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago is conducted through Stanley Manne Children’s Research Institute. The Manne Research Institute is focused on improving child health, transforming pediatric medicine and ensuring healthier futures through the relentless pursuit of knowledge. Lurie Children’s is ranked as one of the nation’s top children’s hospitals by U.S. News & World Report. It is the pediatric training ground for Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.