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The World Can Seem a Dangerous Place

Perception of hostility strains hearts of low-income kids

FRIDAY, May 25, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- You already know stress is bad for the heart, but did you know it's bad for a kid's heart, too?

Patterns for coping with stress begin in childhood, and, for some kids, even the threat of hostility is enough to set their hearts on red alert, especially children from families with little money, a new study reports.

Kids from low-income families perceive more hostility in the world than middle-class kids, and that perception puts added stress on their hearts, the study says.

"In adults, being mistrusting and cynical toward others increases the risk for cardiovascular disease. In children, unless something changes, such perceptions will become more enduring over time," says one of the study's authors, Karen Matthews of the department of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.

Matthews and her colleagues studied 201 children from various socio-economic backgrounds. Half the children were African-American, and they were ages 8 to 10 or 15 to 17.

The researchers checked the children's blood pressure and electrocardiograms while they administered psychological tests. They asked the kids to imagine being in four different situations, including raising a hand in class, answering a question and then hearing a classmate laugh.

The children from lower-income families had "impeded circulation" when imaging one of the stressful situations, meaning their hearts had to work harder to pump blood through the body.

The mere threat of hostility caused the increased load on the heart because the situations were all hypothetical, the researchers say.

Three years later, the researchers followed up with 149 of the kids and found the effects of perceived hostility got even stronger over time in African-American children, the study says.

While the effects on the heart were small during each hypothetical test, over time the cumulative impact could be very damaging, say the researchers.

"Stress always has an effect," says Dr. Naomi Weinshenker, a child psychiatrist and director of the Young Adult In-Patient Program at the New York University Child Study Center. "We don't know if it will lead to heart disease down the line, but it may be a contributor."

Results of the study appear in the current issue of the Annals of Behavioral Medicine.

What To Do

For more information on stress and heart disease, go to the American Heart Association, or read this article from the Cardiovascular Institute of the South.

Or, read these HealthDay articles on stress and heart disease.

SOURCES: Interviews with Karen Matthews, Ph.D., department of psychiatry, University of Pittsburgh Medical School, Pa.; Naomi Weinshenker, M.D., child psychiatrist, director, Young Adult In-Patient Program, New York University Child Study Center, New York City; May 2001 Annals of Behavioral Medicine
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