Could Childhood Stress Cause Hypertension?

One in three adults have high blood pressure, also known as hypertension. Over time, high blood pressure can lead to more serious health conditions, like heart disease and stroke.

There are many causes of high blood pressure, like obesity and genetics. But two researchers at Wayne State University think there may be more to the story.

Principal Investigator Gaurav Kapur and Senior Investigators Virginia Delaney-Black, Lisa Chiodo, Hilary Horn Ratner, Mark Greenwald, and John Hannigan are using information from a long-term pregnancy and childhood study conducted at Wayne State University to determine whether stress during formative years could also play a role in the development of high blood pressure.

The data the group are using was collected starting in 1988. Women coming in for prenatal care at Hutzel met with researchers at each of their visits. The mothers’ blood pressure, weight, and health conditions such as pre-eclampsia and diabetes were noted. Data about the resulting infants was also gathered, including birth weight, gestational age, and Apgar scores.

“There’s a very rich data set about what happened during pregnancy,” Delaney-Black said.

More information was then collected when children were seven, 14, and 19 years of age. They were assessed for their behavior, IQ, weight, hearing, blood pressure and any medical problems. Environmental factors were also recorded including exposure to violence, lead levels and family stability. Of the 556 children who participated at age seven, 400 were still involved in the study at the age of 19.

“It was impressive that we were able to retain that many individuals over that period of time,” Delaney-Black said.

Most women participating in the initial study were socially high-risk, with many qualifying for Medicaid. They also tended to be at an increased risk for other health complications, Delaney-Black explained.

“These were high-risk women,” she said.

The researchers are poring through the information they have to see if they can make any positive links between a stressful home environment and hypertension. Kapur said environmental stress could explain why children with seemingly similar risk factors for high blood pressure don’t develop the condition at the same rate.

“We don’t know how an environment affects high blood pressure and hypertension,” Kapur said.

The duo expects to complete their research later this year. The work is being funded by a grant from the Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan Foundation.


The Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan Foundation supports research and programs to improve the health of Michigan residents. No grant money comes from the premium payments of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan members. To learn more about BCBSM Foundation grant programs, visit bcbsm.com/foundation.

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Photo credit: Emilio Orantes

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