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DALLAS — Feeling loved as a teenager leads to better health in adulthood, a new study finds.

Researchers with the American Heart Association found that the way adolescents feel about their lives may impact the risk of suffering a heart attack or stroke in later life.

Teenagers who reported feeling optimism, happiness, self-esteem, belongingness, and love were more likely to reach their twenties and thirties in good cardiometabolic health compared to teens with fewer of these positive psychological assets. The association was especially strong among black teenagers, according to the findings.

Previous studies have found that psychological aspects of mental well-being — including optimism and happiness — may be important factors with a link to better cardiometabolic health over time. Although most of the studies focused on older adults, this new report looked at childhood and considered a wide range of health factors, such as markers of blood sugar levels and inflammation.

“We learned a lot in the last few decades about the impact of discrimination and other social risks youth of color face that may explain their elevated rates of cardiometabolic disease, however, much less attention is paid to the inherent strengths they possess and the ways those strengths may be leveraged to advance health equity,” says lead study author Farah Qureshi, Sc.D., M.H.S., an assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, in a media release. “In this study, we wanted to shift the paradigm in public health beyond the traditional focus on deficits to one that concentrates on resource building.”

More than half of teens enjoyed only 1 or no positive mental health traits

Researchers analyzed data from nearly 3,500 U.S. high schoolers with an average age of 16 in 1994. The team followed them for more than two decades. Nearly half were girls and 67 percent were white. The team regularly collected data on each participant’s health and well-being, with the most recent checkup coming in 2018, when they were around 38 years-old.

Looking at the initial survey responses from when participants were teens, researchers spotted five mental health assets related to better cardiometabolic health: optimism, happiness, self-esteem, a sense of belonging, and feeling loved.

They cross-referenced this information with health data recorded over three decades to determine whether teenagers who had more of these positive assets were more likely to maintain optimal heart health when they entered adulthood. To examine health in the study, researchers reviewed measures for seven cardiovascular and metabolic disease risk factors. All of the readings came from clinical visits after the participants entered their late 20s and 30s.

These factors included high-density lipoprotein (HDL) or “good” cholesterol, non-HDL cholesterol (calculated as total cholesterol minus HDL cholesterol), systolic blood pressure, diastolic blood pressure, and body mass index (BMI).

Results found that, overall, 55 percent of the teens had zero or one positive mental health asset, while 29 percent had two to three assets and 16 percent had four to five assets.

As young adults, only 12 percent of the participants maintained cardiometabolic health over time. White youngsters were more likely to maintain good health later in life compared to Black or Latino youths. Teenagers with four to five positive mental health assets were 69 percent more likely to maintain positive cardiometabolic health as young adults.

There was also a cumulative effect, with each additional mental health asset leading to a 12-percent greater likelihood of having positive heart and metabolic health. Although psychological assets were protective across all racial and ethnic groups, researchers saw the largest health benefits among Black youths.

Racial disparities still appear during adulthood

Black teenagers also reported having more positive mental health assets than youths of any other racial or ethnic groups. Despite Black youths having the most assets and reaping the most health benefits from them, however, researchers say racial disparities in cardiometabolic health were still apparent during adulthood.

Black people were the least likely to maintain good heart and metabolic health over time, according to the findings, published in the Journal of the American Heart Association.

“These somewhat counterintuitive findings were surprising,” Qureshi says. “When we dug deeper, we found that the absence of psychological assets being was particularly health-damaging for Black youth.”

“For Black youth – who face numerous barriers to achieving and sustaining optimal cardiometabolic health in adulthood – not having these additional mental health resources makes a big difference.”

“This work suggests that early investments in youth mental health may be a critical new frontier in the advancement of cardiometabolic health equity,” Qureshi continues.

“We need more large-scale studies to monitor these and other positive mental health factors starting in childhood to understand how these assets may influence health and disease over the life course. This information may help us identify new ways to improve health and reduce disparities.”

South West News Service writer Stephen Beech contributed to this report.

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