Happy childhood homes may lead to healthier heart as adult

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Growing up in a good, stable home may lower the chances of cardiovascular health problems by adulthood.

A new study published online on Jan. 22 in Circulation revealed that children who had a positive home environment were less likely to have composite variables that could lead to heart problems like high blood pressure and diabetes. The probability that they would have factors that would lead to cardiovascular issues decreased even further for those who had higher cognitive ability and ability to stay focused as well.

Lead author Allison Appleton, a post-doctoral fellow at Dartmouth College's Geisel School of Medicine in Hanover, N.H., told CBSNews.com that she became interested in looking at positive health factors after seeing the connection between a negative home environment and cardiovascular health.

"What we didn't know is, 'What about positive and adaptive features of early life? Would they promote cardiovascular health?'" she explained.

Appleton and her team looked at 415 adults (average age 42) who were enrolled in the Collaborative Prenatal Project, a national project from 1959 to 1966 that collected data on children. At the age of seven, the kids enrolled were measured for their attention regulation as well as their cognitive ability, and their home environment was assessed.

When researchers caught up with the subjects about 35 years later, they took a closer look at their favorable cardiovascular risk (FCR). About 10.6 percent of the group had FCR, which includes having low cholesterol, low blood pressure, a healthy body mass index (BMI), not being a smoker, having no diabetes and taking no hypertensive medications.

For the purposes of the study, researchers created definitions for units to measure the effects of cognitive ability, home environment and attention. One unit for cognitive ability was equal to one standard deviation or 15 points on an IQ test. For the attention regulation and positive home environment factors, researchers divided the participants into three groups. The first unit was the top 33 percent of the subjects, the second unit was the middle 33 percent, and the last unit was the bottom 33 percent.

After compiling the data, researchers saw that each unit increase that a subject had in positive home environment was associated with a 2.4 times higher chance they had a favorable profile.The same went for each unit increase in attention regulation and cognitive ability.

However, if you had one unit increase in all three categories above another person, you were 4.3 times more likely to have FCR.

"Having each one is really important," Appleton said. "If you have all three, it's really good."

Maureen Talbot, a senior cardiac nurse at the British Heart Foundation who was not involved in the study, told the BBC that she thought more research should be done to see what role childhood emotional health played in cardiovascular health. However, she recognized that it was already known that a person's health early in life can play a role in the future.

"There are positive steps parents can take to protect their child's future heart health," she said. "What we learn when we're young can often set the tone for our habits later in life, so teaching children about physical activity and a balanced diet is a great place to start."

Appleton hopes that the study will remind researchers to take a look at all factors that can influence health, not just the negative risks.

"In public health, we think all the time about factors that can increase a person's risk. There are factors that are positive that can help. It's what clinicians should be thinking about," she said.

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