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  Stress and health: Lifespan stress and cardio-metabolic disease risk pathways through cardiovascular stress reactivity

   Faculty of Health Sciences and Sport

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  Prof Anna Whittaker  Applications accepted all year round  Self-Funded PhD Students Only

About the Project

There are large physiological variations in how individuals respond to stressful stimuli which have important health and behavioural implications (Carroll et al., 2009a; Chida and Steptoe, 2010; Phillips and Hughes, 2011). Stress responses include the acute sympathetic nervous system response with adrenaline, measured via cardiovascular changes, as well as the slower cortisol response. The magnitude of individual differences in CV reactions during acute exposure to psychological stress have been shown to be relatively consistent and stable over time, indicating that the extent of stress reactivity is an individual trait rather than state (Ginty et al., 2013; Sherwood et al., 1990). It is also clear that these differences can have an impact on health and behaviour (Carroll et al., 2017, 2009b; Chida and Steptoe, 2010); individuals who show large magnitude CV reactions to acute psychological stress are at increased risk of developing CV Disease (CVD).  

In contrast, low or blunted CV reactivity to acute stress has been regarded as benign or even health protective. However, more recent evidence suggests that low CV, and also low cortisol reactivity to stress are also correlated with negative health outcomes and behaviours.  As such, blunted stress reactivity may indicate an alternative pathway to increased risk of CVD via negative health behaviours. Although there is a substantial body of evidence demonstrating the correlates of both exaggerated and blunted CV and cortisol reactivity, the exact origins of reactivity magnitude are unknown (Phillips et al., 2013). It has recently been suggested that genetic influences may interact with adverse childhood experiences to influence stress reactivity (Lovallo et al., 2016). Therefore, early-life adversity has also been implicated as a potential pathway to reactivity differences. Childhood adversity is also associated with poor health; being related to CVD (Appleton et al., 2017) and pre-disease markers such as increased carotid intima-media thickness/plaque (Khan et al., 2011). It is plausible that childhood adversity may, in part, link to negative health outcomes via dysregulated stress reactivity.

Research has suggested that early-life trauma influences future stress reactivity magnitude (Carpenter et al., 2011; Heim et al., 2000). It was originally thought that stressful childhoods contribute to the development of exaggerated physiological reactions to stress (Boyce and Ellis, 2005). However, recent research suggests that childhood adversity/stress may instead lead to blunted heart rate (Lovallo et al., 2012) and cortisol reactivity (Goldman-Mellor et al., 2012). This is supported by evidence using functional magnetic resonance imaging (Banihashemi et al., 2015). Despite the mixed findings, the bulk of research in healthy humans, implies that childhood adversity is associated with blunted and not exaggerated reactivity to acute psychological stress. However, clear explanations to why other studies have found conflicting evidence are lacking and thus the precise role of childhood adversity in determining reactivity magnitude remains unclear. It is possible that childhood adversity might result in either blunted or exaggerated reactivity, depending on a range of intervening factors in adulthood, including stressful life events in adulthood. We have previously shown that high levels of stressful events in adolescence and in older age are associated with blunted CV responses to acute stress (Carroll et al., 2005; Phillips et al., 2005). However, what is not known is whether early life and recent stressful life events interact to predict blunted or exaggerated stress reactivity, and thus, CVD risk. 

 However, most studies examine the impact of childhood or adult stress independently, rather than together, despite the contention that early exposure to stress and adult stress experience may additively contribute to later health outcomes (Evans & Kim, 2010) (accumulation model), or alternatively that childhood adversity may amplify the response to future stress exposure in adulthood resulting in pathology (McLaughlin et al., 2010) (sensitisation model). Further, it has been theorised that the trajectory of exposure to different risk factors across the lifespan can influence the development of future CVD, including risk factors such as depression and poor social support (Hardy et al., 2015). This highlights the importance of considering the interactions between stress and other psychosocial factors as well as stress at different points in the lifespan.

A very recent study has partially addressed this gap by examining early life adversity and recent life events and their association in the prediction of cardio-metabolic disease risk. This was measured through resting blood pressure, obesity markers, blood lipid and blood glucose measures, and showed that both types of stress were associated with increased body mass index, waist circumference and cardio-metabolic risk score (an aggregation of body fat and blood markers). These effects were not mediated by psychosocial factors such as depression, personality or coping styles (Gebreab et al., 2018). However, no interaction between childhood and adult adversity was shown in this study (suggesting additive not synergistic effects), and measurements did not incorporate stress reactivity, so it was not able to address the issue of the interaction of stress across the lifespan effects on reactivity. One study has examined the link between childhood adversity, CV reactivity, and adolescent psychopathology, and shown CV reactivity to be a linking mechanism such that individuals subject to early life trauma displayed externalising psychopathology which was mediated by inefficient reactivity, characterised by blunted cardiac output responding (Heleniak et al., 2016).

This project will address these gaps in knowledge and use it to understand how different types of stress relate through different pathways to increased CV disease risk. This could then be applied to stress screening to inform early psychosocial interventions to reduce CV disease risk.

Consequently, the present project aims to assess the impact of trajectories of stress across the lifespan on cardio-metabolic risk as well as stress reactivity. To address this aim, the project has two specific goals:

a)      to examine the interaction between childhood adversity and adult stressful life events on CV and cortisol reactivity to acute psychological stress in a new experimental study

b)     to examine whether any relationship between accumulation of stress across the lifespan and markers of cardio-metabolic risk, are linked via the magnitude of CV and cortisol reactivity in existing cohort studies.

Nursing & Health (27) Psychology (31) Sport & Exercise Science (33)

Funding Notes

Self-Funded Students Only
If you have the correct qualifications and access to your own funding, either from your home country or your own finances, your application to work with this supervisor will be considered.


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