It has been observed that people exposed to major psychological stressors in early life often have elevated rates of morbidity and mortality from chronic diseases of aging. Studies of children raised in poverty or maltreated by their parents, show heightened vulnerability to vascular disease, autoimmune disorders, and premature mortality. The authors of this paper discuss their model which maintains that childhood stress gets “programmed” into macrophages through epigenetic mechanisms, posttranslational modifications, and tissue remodeling. At the biochemical level, these cells show proinflammatory tendencies, with exaggerated cytokine responses to challenge and decreased sensitivity to inhibitory hormonal signals. At the behavioral level, they suggest that childhood stress gives rise to excessive threat vigilance, mistrust of others, poor interpersonal relationships and impaired self-regulation, among others. At the hormonal level, early stress confers altered patterns of endocrine and autonomic activity. This is suggested to amplify the proinflammatory environment already initiated by macrophages. Acting together with other environmental and genetic factors, the resulting inflammation drives forward mechanisms that promote chronic disease.
Miller GE, Chen E, Parker KJ: Psychological stress in childhood and susceptibility to the chronic diseases of aging: moving toward a model of behavioral and biological mechanisms. Psychol Bull. 2011 July 25. [Epub ahead of print].