Bullying in childhood linked to chronic disease risk in adults

A new study finds being bullied as a child can lead to increased risk of heart disease and diabetes in adulthood.
By Amy Wallace  |  March 10, 2017 at 12:09 PM
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March 10 (UPI) -- Researchers from the Mayo Clinic have found bullying during childhood may increase a person's chance of developing lifelong health problems from exposure to chronic stress.

The study suggests adults who were exposed to bullying as a child had in increased risk for heart disease and diabetes.

"Bullying, as a form of chronic social stress, may have significant health consequences if not addressed early," Susannah J. Tye, researcher at the Mayo Clinic, said in a press release. "We encourage child health professionals to assess both the mental and physical health effects of bullying."

Bullying has also been linked to an increased risk of psychiatric disorders.

"Once dismissed as an innocuous experience of childhood, bullying is now recognized as having significant psychological effects, particularly with chronic exposure," Tye said. "It is important that we appreciate the biological processes linking these psychological and physiological phenomena, including their potential to impact long-term health."

Research suggests any form of continued physical or mental stress can put a strain on the body, leading to increasing wear and tear in a process known as allostatic load.

Allostatic load is the cumulative impact of biological responses to ongoing or repeated stress such as the fight or flight response. It can lead to changes in inflammatory, hormonal, and metabolic responses. These changes can lead to the development of diseases such as depression, diabetes and heart disease.

"When an individual is exposed to brief periods of stress, the body can often effectively cope with the challenge and recover back to baseline," Tye said. "Yet, with chronic stress, this recovery process may not have ample opportunity to occur, and allostatic load can build to a point of overload. In such states of allostatic load, physiological processes critical to health and well-being can be negatively impacted."

Chronic stress in childhood can affect a child's ability to develop psychological skills to cope with future stress.

"Asking about bullying ... represents a practical first step towards intervening to prevent traumatic exposure and reduce risk for further psychiatric and related morbidities," Tye said.

The study was published in the Harvard Review of Psychiatry.

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