Academic Study Links Childhood Stress and Obesity in Women

A new study by sociologists at Michigan State University and the University of Texas at Austin has found a correlation between childhood stress and weight gain when women get older. Adult stress also was related to weight gain among women but not to the same degree as childhood stress. The research found no connection between childhood or adult stress and weight gain in adult men. The researchers used data from the Americans’ Changing Lives survey which interviewed more than 3,600 people four times over a 15-year period.

The authors said women who experienced higher levels of childhood stress gained weight more rapidly than women who experienced less childhood stress. Change in body mass is a process that unfolds throughout life, the authors noted, and childhood may be a critical period for establishing patterns that have a long-term impact on women’s weight over time. The authors note that women tend to eat more to cope with stress, whereas men are more likely to engage in less weight-related strategies such as withdrawing or drinking alcohol. Gender differences in depression may also help explain the difference. Depression is associated with emotion-driven eating and weight gain.

lui-hHui Liu, an associate professor of sociology at Michigan State University and a co-author of the study, said that “these findings add to our understanding of how childhood stress is a more important driver of long-term weight gain than adult stress, and how such processes differ for men and women. Given the importance of body mass on health and disability, it’s important that we consider the sex-specific social contexts of early childhood in order to design effective clinical programs that prevent or treat obesity later in life.”

Dr. Liu holds bachelor’s and master’s degree in economics from Nankai University in China. She earned a master’s degree in statistics and a Ph.D. in sociology and demography from the University of Texas at Austin. Her co-author is Debra Umberson, a professor of sociology at the University of Texas.

The study, “Gender, Stress in Childhood and Adulthood, and Trajectories of Change in Body Mass,” was funded by the National Institute on Aging and the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. It was published on the website of the journal Social Science & Medicine. It may be accessed here.

Filed Under: Gender GapResearch/Study


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