The family environment impacts future heart health.

By: Diana Bello Aristizábal


Para leer en Español

February is American Heart Month, that time of the year when we need to remember that heart disease remains the leading cause of death in the United States. This year, however, a new game changer has come to the scene: According to a study, there is a link between the family environment in childhood and cardiovascular health in adulthood.

American researchers reached this conclusion after assessing and surveying 2,074 individuals from childhood to adulthood over a period of 20 years. Among the most important findings of the study, published on January 23, 2024, in the journal Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes, is that adults with a history of abusive relationships in childhood were at greater risk of a worse heart health.

In contrast, children who had positive relationships scored 25 percent higher in their heart health later in life. The results also showed that those who grew up in a slightly higher risky family environment compared to others had less chance of attaining the optimum heart health score.

Although the study considered other variables such as diet, exercise, smoking, cholesterol, blood pressure and weight, as well as factors such as household income and substance use, among others, according to the new findings in the sample selected, it could be deduced that growing up in an unhealthy environment does influence cardiac health.

With this, researchers have given parents and caregivers another reason to be more responsible in parenting and to protect their mental health since clearly an emotionally healthy adult will be less likely to mistreat a minor. This task becomes urgent if we reflect on the fact that 59 percent of American adults reported at least one adverse childhood experience, according to a survey by the American Heart Association.


A broader look

For Yadira Martinez-Fernandez, MD, pediatric cardiologist at Nicklaus Children’s Hospital, it is difficult to determine whether or not a child that has suffered from abuse is more vulnerable to develop a cardiovascular problem later in life, among other things because other variables come into play, and she doesn’t evaluate the connection between those two things from her practice.

Yadira Martinez-Fernandez, MD

However, certain circumstances that often times occur in dysfunctional homes or where there is abuse, although not necessarily, in addition to some risk factors can affect heart health in the present or in the future.

“Heart diseases are classified as acquired or congenital, the latter being the ones that have the greatest impact in adulthood. If we take as an example a mother who unknowingly has a baby with a congenital issue and also carries out poor lifestyle habits, is in a difficult economic situation and lacks access to health care, as happens with so many immigrants, it is likely that she will not take her child to the doctor out of fear towards the system, and that child could die,” she explains.

From this point of view, instability at home has a negative impact on physical health, even more so when we know there are many parents that, for different reasons, but especially because they have to work all day, leave their children alone, failing to watch their diet and not taking them to the doctor. For this reason, a lot of children end up with obesity, which is the main risk factor as it is the precursor to diseases such as hypertension or type 2 diabetes.

Additionally, chronic stress, anxiety, and depression, that sometimes arise as a result of living in a toxic family environment, affect heart health. “Any mental health problem resulting from a negative life experience is a risk factor for cardiovascular issues. Depression, for example, is associated with high inflammatory levels that could lead to hypertension,” says the expert.


Discipline is different than abuse

Considering the psychological effects and the subsequent impact on the heart that abuse can leave, it is important that caregivers follow healthy parenting guidelines, and work on themselves. “Eggs, milk and therapy, these should be the priorities in a family,” says Erika Monroy, a clinical and educational psychologist specialized in emotional intelligence.

Erika Monroy

When we are in charge of children, not learning techniques to manage stress or overcome trauma can lead us to engage in violent behavior unto them, which leaves an emotional and physical scar. “If for many years and many times a day there is a feeling of stress, adrenaline and cortisol are produced. The latter is poison for the blood and who pumps blood? Well, the heart. That’s why there are so many heart attacks,” Monroy explains.

However, the focus is not towards criticizing parents but rather about understanding as a society that we must become better in the way we support them so that they learn to deal with feelings of sadness or anger.

In the meantime, and in order to not depend on a system that has yet to deconstruct many aspects of mental health care, the starting point is to sleep and eat well, exercise, meditate and limit the use of technology to be more in the present moment. “When this becomes a practice, better decisions are made to discipline through education and not through punishment,” Monroy states.





Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Send this to a friend