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New study links childhood trauma with heart failure

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Mike Moen

(Greater Dakota News Service) Child-abuse prevention specialists say a new study underscores the need to protect kids from traumatic situations to avoid long-term physical health issues. International researchers have found a 14 percent increase in heart failure among adults who experienced one form of childhood maltreatment. 

Those with three to five types of maltreatment had a 43 percent increased risk. 

Brooke Jones, a child-abuse pediatrician based in Sioux Falls, said these events place stressors on the body.

"If you've heard of the term 'fight or flight' - if you're having constant adversity in your childhood, you might be in a constant flight stage, meaning that you don't have any down regulation or you're not getting out of that constant stress environment," Jones said. 

And that constant stress can leave its mark in multiple ways, including cardiovascular disease, as these kids transition to adulthood. Jones said parents or caregivers can reduce the impact by providing a nurturing environment as the child grows. 

She said it can involve simple things, such as reading to them or finding ways to let them know they are in a safe space. 

Shakira Suglia, director of epidemiology at Emory University, chaired a 2017 American Heart Association report that tied adverse childhood experiences to adult health risks, including heart disease. She said the new study adds to evidence that the mental and physical health effect go hand-in-hand when peeling back the layers of trauma. 

"There might be development of depression or anxiety disorders that may make someone more prone to then cope with substances," she said. "For example, the uptake of smoking is also another thing that people tend to use to cope with stress."

Suglia echoed calls for policymakers and community-level organizations to do anything that supports stronger family relationships, especially in situations where trauma has surfaced in a household. She said outside of the home, schools and care centers can be on alert for children who have dealt with trauma and should try to emphasize a welcoming environment in those settings.