A group of Minnesota families that tested an approach to preventing child obesity several years ago is being recruited for new research on the link between stress in childhood and chronic disease in adulthood.
Bloomington-based HealthPartners has received a $2.45 million federal grant to work with the University of Minnesota and reconnect with as many of the 534 families that participated in the study as possible to see if their life experiences can reveal early clues about the causes of heart disease, diabetes and other conditions.
“We know very little” about the role of childhood stress on adult disease risk, said Alicia Kunin-Batson, the principal investigator of the new study. “We know even less about protective factors that could mitigate that risk.”
The existing study group presents a rare opportunity because researchers have already collected so much information about their children — how they were raised, what foods they eat, how often they’ve moved, and how they handle stressful situations.
“We’ve been seeing these children annually since they were 2 to 4 years old,” said Kunin-Batson, noting they represent a diverse group both racially and socioeconomically.
Other studies have tackled the stress-disease link in reverse — by recruiting adults with heart problems and asking them to recall childhood stressors. The new study will provide a more reliable assessment.
While researchers won’t be able to look in the future to learn if the children develop heart disease or diabetes, they will be able to measure biometric levels in the children that are linked to disease risks. Measurements include levels of cortisol, a steroid hormone, and the amount of oxidative stress that can disrupt cellular function.
“It’s really looking at precursors that could influence their disease risk later on,” Kunin-Batson said.
One goal is to compare lifestyles to see if children lacking signs of future disease risks have something in common. If stressed-out parents produce children with biometric signs of future disease, then Kunin-Batson said the parents could receive counseling or support. Or excessive screen time for children might turn out to be a key risk factor that can then be addressed.