Negative Childhood Experiences Could Impact Cardiovascular Health in Adulthood


In a study, more than 28% of participants met an ideal cardiovascular health score at the beginning of the study, with only 16% having ideal cardiovascular health at the 20-year mark.

Adverse family experience in childhood have been linked to increased odds of poorer cardiovascular health, whereas stable and nurturing caregiver relationships increased odds of optimal cardiovascular health into adulthood, according to research published in Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes.1,2

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“While it is known that early childhood health lays the foundation for health later in life, we found how children interact with adults in their lives may also be impactful,” Robin Ortiz, MD, MS, an assistant professor in the pediatrics and population health departments and a faculty member in the Institute for Excellence in Health Equity at New York University Grossman School of Medicine in New York City, said in the press release.1

Furthermore, the findings also showed that a lower income in adulthood could introduce adversity in life, potentially amplifying the experiences of a difficult childhood. According to the press release, this could make it harder to determine the relationship between caregiver-child adversity and heart health.1

The study investigators said they were the first to identify a link between childhood family environment and cardiovascular health throughout different timepoints in adult life, expanding to a 20-year follow-up period.1 According to the study authors, investigators used data from the Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults study, including Black and White adults aged 18 years to 30 years.1,2 The study investigators included 2074 adults from the study with a mean age of 25 years and majority women.1

3 Key Takeaways

  1. The study establishes a link between adverse family experiences in childhood and cardiovascular health in adulthood, emphasizing the profound influence of early life interactions with caregivers on long-term heart health.
  2. Individuals who reported positive experiences with caregivers showed a 12% higher likelihood of achieving the highest cardiovascular health scores, emphasizing the long-term benefits of a supportive early family environment.
  3. Che study reveals that the lack of stability in caregiver relationships, characterized by unpredictability and potential exposure to both abuse and warmth, may be as detrimental to cardiovascular health as experiencing high rates of abuse without protective factors.

Using the Risky Family Environment questionnaire, investigators measured the adverse childhood experience. Questions included in the survey pertained to if the individual felt love or was cared for, was shown physical affection, was verbally abused, was physically abused, lived with an individual with substance use disorder, lived in a well-managed household, and whether the family members knew what their child was doing, according to the press release.1

The scores for cardiovascular health were measured using the American Heart Association’s Life’s Simple 7 metrics in a range of 0 to 14. More than 28% of the individuals met an ideal cardiovascular health score of 12 or higher at the beginning of the study, whereas only 16% had ideal cardiovascular health at the 20-year mark, according to the press release.1

Additionally, at the 20-year mark, investigators found that a 1-unit score on the Risky Family Environment score was associated with approximately 4% lower odds of having high cardiovascular score. Abuse was linked to approximately 13% decreased odds, according to the results.1,2 For those who had positive experiences between caregiver and child, there was an associated 12% higher odds of the highest cardiovascular health score.

“However, it turns out that those with high caregiver warmth who also experienced high abuse were still more likely to have lower cardiovascular health scores,” Ortiz said in the press release. “This suggests that the lack of stability in a caregiver relationship—in other words, the potential to experience abuse and warmth with unpredictability for either—may be as harmful as exposure to high rates of abuse without protective factors.”1

Furthermore, even though the relationship between childhood exposures and adulthood cardiovascular health remained unchanged for those with an annual income above $35,000 in adulthood, those with less than $35,000 in adulthood could compound the effects of early adversity, according to the press release.1

Ortiz added that it is important to future studies to follow children early and throughout their lives to determine more definitive statements about the impact of early life exposures and later-life outcomes.1


  1. Childhood relationships, experiences may have good and bad effects on adult heart health. News release. American Heart Association. January 23, 2024. Accessed January 25, 2024.
  2. Ortiz R, Kershaw KN, Zhao S, Kline D, et al. Evidence for the Association Between Adverse Childhood Family Environment, Child Abuse, and Caregiver Warmth and Cardiovascular Health Across the Lifespan: The Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults (CARDIA) Study. Circ Cardiovasc Qual Outcomes. 2024.doi:10.1161/CIRCOUTCOMES.122.009794
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