Happy, loved-up teenagers grow into heart-healthier adults

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By Amy Norton

Health Day Reporter

WEDNESDAY, Jan. 11, 2023 (HealthDay News) — When teens feel good about themselves and their lives, it can also be good for their hearts in the long run, a new study finds.

Researchers found that teenagers who generally felt happy, optimistic, and loved showed better cardiovascular health in their 20s and 30s than children who lacked this level of mental well-being.

Overall, they were more likely to maintain a healthy weight and normal blood pressure, blood sugar, and cholesterol levels. And having such positive feelings seemed particularly important for the future health of black teenagers.

The idea that children’s well-being can affect their health well into adulthood is not new. Studies have shown that childhood obesity, for example, is associated with an increased risk of various health conditions — including type 2 diabetes and heart disease — later in life.

And the links go beyond physical factors: Adults who endured hardships like abuse and neglect during childhood are also at increased risk of heart disease and other diseases.

Experts said the new study asks a different question: Are there positive psychological “benefits” that could help protect children’s physical health in the long term?

“One thing that struck me is that we really don’t have a handle on the ‘good stuff’ that kids need to support their cardiometabolic health,” lead researcher Farah Qureshi, an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins, told Bloomberg School of Public Health, in Baltimore.

To get to the bottom of this question, her team examined data from a national health study that took nearly 3,500 US high school students in the 1990s and followed for more than two decades.

To start, students answered questions that assessed five psychological values: happiness; hope in the future; high self-confidence; feeling socially accepted; to feel loved and wanted.

The bad news: More than half of the children – 55% – had none or only one of these positive feelings.

But when they had four or five of these assets, they were about 69% more likely than their peers to maintain good cardiovascular health into their 30s. A number of other factors, such as family income, parental education and children’s body weight, were taken into account.

Additionally, these positive feelings seemed to be particularly critical for black teens. If they didn’t have them, they were very unlikely to be in good cardiovascular health 20 years later: only 6% were.

As for why, Qureshi said the way children think about themselves and their lives can affect their health behaviors.

It’s generally difficult to exercise regularly and eat a healthy diet, she noted. But if you’re comfortable with yourself and the future, that’s a good motivator.

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

“For example, when we’re optimistic, we expect that we’ll be able to handle a situation, so we behave accordingly,” said Kovacs, a clinical and health psychologist at Equilibria Psychological Health in Toronto.

That could be the difference between believing or not believing that you can change an unhealthy habit, Kovacs said.

In addition, psychological factors such as chronic stress can have direct physiological effects on the body, according to the two experts.

Kovacs said the new study is a reminder that “we need to broaden our conceptualization of cardiovascular risk factors.” And that has to start early in life, she noted.

Consistent with previous research, this study found that an unfortunately small number of participants maintained good cardiovascular health well into their late 30s: only 12% overall.

But having psychological advantages in adolescence enhanced those chances. Meanwhile, a lack of these positive feelings appeared to be particularly detrimental for black teens: In the study group with some or no psychic ability, only 6% of black children were in good cardiovascular health by adulthood, versus 12% of their white peers.

That means supporting teens’ mental well-being is also a matter of health equity, both experts said.

Qureshi said that for black teenagers facing the chronic stress of structural racism, a strong sense of self-esteem, a sense of belonging and a sense of being loved can be especially important.

Of course, parents can support those feelings, Qureshi and Kovacs said. But every adult in a child’s life can do that, as can schools, community programs, and society at large. As an example, Kovacs referred to the health system, which could do better “to create an environment in which everyone feels they belong”.

For families, Qureshi said, supporting children’s mental well-being “can be as simple as sitting down over dinner and asking them how they’re doing — those things we can take for granted.”

The study was published online on January 11 in Journal of the American Heart Association.

More information

The American Heart Association offers advice on maintaining good health throughout your life.

SOURCES: Farah Qureshi, ScD, MHS, Assistant Professor, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Baltimore, Md.; Adrienne Kovacs, PhD, Volunteer Expert, American Heart Association, Dallas, and Clinical and Health Psychologist, Equilibria Psychological Health, Toronto; Journal of the American Heart Association, January 11, 2023 online

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Happy, loved-up teenagers grow into heart-healthier adults
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