Boys in elementary school who come from more crowded homes have a greater physiological response to stressful situations and wind up taking more days off from school because of illness, new research shows.
"Our analyses indicate that a chronic stressor, such as greater household density, is related to larger increases in cardiovascular responses to stressful circumstances," Catharine H. Johnston-Brooks, MA, of the University of Colorado (Boulder) and her colleagues write in the September-October issue of Psychosomatic Medicine. "The research provides the first evidence that cardiovascular reactivity may explain the relationship between chronic stress and physical illness."
"Since cardiovascular reactivity is considered a marker for potential disease, greater household density in childhood could be a risk factor for cardiovascular disease in adulthood," they say.
Johnston-Brooks and her colleagues monitored the heart rates and blood pressures of 81 sixth-grade boys while the boys completed a series of stressful tests, including mental arithmetic.
Information on the size of the boys' homes, the number of people living there, and the number of days they missed school because of illness came from answers to a questionnaire completed by their mothers.
With an average of about two rooms per person, the boys' homes were not particularly crowded. Nevertheless, the researchers found that boys from homes that were more crowded than the average showed greater changes in heart rate and blood pressure while completing the stressful tests. In turn, greater changes in these physiological measures predicted more sick days.
Johnston-Brooks and her colleagues say their results provide support for the theory that physiological arousal is a marker for "an underlying pathophysiological state" that predisposes people to ill health.
"Chronic physiological arousal may indicate a system working under a great deal of strain," they write. "The energy required to maintain such a system may result in depleted resources and resultant illness," they say.
The research was partially fiuned by a grant from the National Science Foundation.
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