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Happy teens have a healthier heart in adulthood

Happy teenagers who feel loved and accepted will have healthier cardiovascular systems in later life, a new study suggests.

Adolescents who reported being happy, feeling optimistic, had high self-esteem, acceptance and love were more likely to have good cardio-metabolic health in adulthood, compared to children who lacked this level of mental well-being. This is demonstrated by a new study from the American Heart Association (AHA), published January 11, 2023, in the Journal of the American Heart Association (AHA publication).

At the age of 20-30, teens were more likely to maintain a healthy weight, as well as normal blood pressure, blood sugar and cholesterol levels. And having positive feelings, namely feeling happy, was found to be particularly important for the future health of black teens.

Happy children make healthy adults?

The idea that children’s well-being can influence their health as adults is not new. Previous studies have shown that childhood obesity is associated with an increased risk of various diseases. These include type 2 diabetes and heart disease.

However, scientists have found other links. Adults who have experienced childhood abuse and neglect are also at increased risk of heart and other diseases.

So, the scientists set themselves other tasks. They focused on the question: what positive psychological “assets” can help protect children’s physical health in the long run?

One thing I’m struck by is, we really don’t have a handle on the “good things” that kids need to support their cardiometabolic health. In this study, we wanted to shift the paradigm in public health beyond the traditional focus on deficits to one that concentrates on resource building.

Lead researcher Farah Qureshi, an assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, in Baltimore

Methodology

To look into this question, a team of researchers led by Qureshi analyzed data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health. It involved nearly 3,500 U.S. high school students (average age 16), almost equally boys and girls. They were recruited in 1994 and followed for more than two decades.

First, the students answered questions that measured five psychological factors. These included whether they were happy; had hopes for the future; had high self-esteem; felt accepted in society; and felt loved. Researchers periodically collected data on the health and well-being of participants, the last wave of data collection was in 2018, when their average age was 38 years.

To study cardio-metabolic health, the researchers analyzed health indicators for seven risk factors for cardiovascular and metabolic diseases. They were collected during clinic visits when participants were between the ages of 20 and 30. These factors included high-density lipoprotein (HDL), or “good” cholesterol; non-HDL cholesterol – calculated as total cholesterol minus HDL; blood pressure); hemoglobin A1c, a measure of blood sugar; C-reactive protein, a measure of inflammation; and body mass index (BMI), a ratio of height to weight to estimate the percentage of body fat.

The results: happy teens do indeed have better overall health outcomes in the future

The bad news: more than half of the children – 55% – had none or only one of the positive mental health indicators. 29% of adolescents had two to three factors and 16% had four to five factors. Their chances of maintaining good cardiovascular health until their 30s were about 69% higher than their peers. This is even though a number of other factors were considered, including family income, parental education and children’s body weight.

Each additional point of mental health increased the likelihood of positive cardio-metabolic health by 12%. That is, there was a cumulative effect.

Moreover, these positive feelings were especially important for black adolescents. When they did not have them, they were more likely to have cardiovascular problems 20 years later. Only 6% were healthy in this sense. At the same time, among other participants the percentage was 12%.

Researchers’ conclusions

According to Qureshi, the way children feel about themselves and their lives can influence their health behavior. For example, exercising regularly and eating right.

Adrienne Kovacs, a volunteer expert with the American Heart Association, agreed.

When we’re optimistic, for example, we expect that we’re going to be able to handle a situation, so we behave accordingly. The new study is a reminder that we need to broaden our conceptualization of cardiovascular risk factors. And that has to begin early in life.

Adrienne Kovacs, a clinical and health psychologist with Equilibria Psychological Health in Toronto

Plus, both experts noted that psychological factors such as chronic stress can have a direct physiological impact on the body. And these are things that can be influenced by the child’s immediate environment: parents, school, NGOs and society in general.

Supporting kids’ mental well-being can be as simple as sitting down together at dinner and asking them how they’re doing – those things we can take for granted.

Lead researcher Farah Qureshi

Natalia Silina, the founder of the School of Women’s Health, tells in detail about the growing up of a teenage girl in her course Growing up together – a girl becomes a woman.

I’m eager to file all of these courses in English, just send me a request to dr.silinaeducation@gmail.com.

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