May 2021: Mental Health in Childhood Could Have Impact on Long-Term Physical Health Outcomes

Center Postdoctoral Research Fellow Dr. Farah Qureshi aims to identify social and psychological resources that help set young people on healthy trajectories. In this Research Spotlight, she discusses her recent paper examining the relationship between children’s mental health and changes in cardiometabolic functioning.

Dr. Farah Qureshi led a study examining the relationship between mental health and changes in cardiometabolic risk among multi-ethnic children in the Netherlands. The results, recently published in Psychosomatic Medicine, found that behavioral problems in early childhood – a common measure of mental health – were unrelated to a cardiometabolic risk defined using a composite of seven biological markers of cardiovascular and metabolic functioning at age six. However, increases in risk appeared in children aged six to ten. “Kids are generally quite healthy, so seeing relationships between psychological factors and early declines in cardiometabolic functioning so early in life is pretty remarkable,” Dr. Qureshi said. “It is especially surprising considering these factors are thought to influence health in part through their impact on behaviors (e.g., smoking, physical activity, diet), which are not fully established in kids.”

The study is part of Dr. Qureshi’s broader research agenda to identify social and psychological resources that help set young people on healthy cardiometabolic trajectories starting in childhood. “Most prior research in this area focuses on adults, even though we know that the first years of life – and particularly the early childhood period – play a tremendously important role in establishing the foundations for lifelong health,” Dr. Qureshi said. “Our findings suggest that efforts to support mental health early in life may have long-term impacts on cardiometabolic health that begin to manifest before kids even reach adolescence.”

In previous studies, Dr. Qureshi observed patterns between psychological well-being and cardiovascular health in older populations but needed further context to interpret what she had observed. “When we only look at these relationships among adults, we’re unable to discern how these patterns evolve,” she said. “Determining when health begins to diverge would point to specific periods in life when it is particularly important to enhance well-being both for its own sake but also to prevent the early onset of chronic disease.” Findings from her recent study suggest that early childhood may be such a period, and she encourages researchers to consider the long-term cardiometabolic effects of interventions that support children’s mental health.

Moving forward, Dr. Qureshi plans to apply this line of research to the study of health inequities. “I’m eager to explore whether the social patterning of psychological factors is related to the persistent racial differences in cardiometabolic health that we see in the population, and to also investigate the structural determinants of these trends,” she said. “Relatedly, I look forward to extending my focus from psychological resources to social ones, particularly in schools. Since that’s where most kids spend the majority of their time, it is especially important to identify ways these environments can be leveraged to support well-being and positive health across the lifespan.”