Unpopular children more likely to suffer heart problems in adulthood, study suggests

Unpopular children are more likely to suffer from heart problems in later life, a new study has suggested.

Family circumstances and living conditions in childhood are known as important factors for both mental and physical health in adult life, but the impact of a child’s popularity remains relatively unknown.

But according to the research published in the online journal BMJ Open, the risk of developing heart and blood vessel conditions is “significantly increased” for 13-year-olds who aren’t very popular with their classmates.

The researchers used data from the Stockholm Birth Cohort Multigenerational Study (SBC Multigen), which includes people born in 1953 and who were living in Stockholm in 1963.

The health of 5,410 men and 5,990 women, whose peer group status was known at the age of 13, was tracked into their 60s, using data from inpatient care registers.

To assess peer group status, the teenagers were asked whom among their classmates they preferred to work with.

Their responses were categorised into four groups to determine popularity; zero nominations meant they were marginalised, 1 (low status), 2 or 3 (medium status), and 4 or more classed them as high status.

Boys enjoyed a slightly higher level of popularity at the age of 13 (33 per cent), compared to girls (28.5 per cent).

And circulatory disease was more common among the men than it was among the women,18.5 per cent vs 11 per cent.

But the risk of the disease in adulthood increased by a third (33-34 per cent) for those who were unpopular with their peer group at age 13 in both sexes.

This risk remained significantly increased even after accounting for potentially influential factors, such as parental education and mental health, socioeconomic conditions, and school factors.

For girls, though not statistically significant, the study also found the less popular they were, the higher their risk of circulatory disease in adulthood.

And this risk was still greater for girls in the medium to high peer group status, compared to their most popular classmates.

“Our findings suggest an increased susceptibility of marginalised peers for circulatory disease in later life, which is in line with other studies that considered long-term impacts of peer integration,” the researchers wrote.

As this was an observational study, the researchers said unpopularity in adolescence cannot be seen as an established cause for heart and blood vessel conditions in adulthood.

The added that childhood peer group status was measured at a single point in time, and there was limited information available about health and health behaviours from childhood into adult life, which may have “skewed the findings”.

But they said: “Peer relations play an important role for children’s emotional and social development and may have considerable long-term implications on their health.” 

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