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Ewart collaborates with local high schools to study how stress affects health
Ewart collaborates with local high schools to study how stress affects healthMay 05, 2004Cynthia J. Moritzcjmoritz@syr.edu
Many people know that emotional stress is a contributing factor for heart disease and other conditions. What most people don’t know, however, is that children’s emotional stress may contribute to their developing heart disease or some other health problem later in life.
“We now know that emotional stress can accelerate conditions that may be developing,” says Craig K. Ewart, psychology professor and senior scientist at the Center for Health and Behavior within Syracuse University’s psychology department. “The process begins early in life.”
Ewart points out that anger, anxiety and sadness are accompanied by hormonal changes that have the potential to raise blood pressure, alter blood cholesterol and, by increasing insulin resistance, alter sodium absorption and increase the accumulation of abdominal body fat. Recent research suggests that the development of heart disease begins early in life.
To investigate how stress in adolescents contributes to the development of health problems, Ewart started Project Heart in the 1980s in Baltimore. Under a new grant from the National Institutes of Health, he is continuing that research at public high schools in Syracuse. The new Project Heart study offers ninth-graders a free health screening that provides information about their cardiovascular risk status, measuring such variables as blood pressure and degree of obesity. Information from the screening will be shared with students and their parents, along with recommendations for appropriate behavior changes, such as increasing exercise or eating a lower-fat diet. Next year’s ninth graders will also participate. SU undergraduates and graduate students are assisting with Project Heart.
Interested high school students will be invited to wear a blood pressure monitor for 24 hours to measure the changes during a typical day. Such recordings can reveal the levels of stress in students’ lives and indicate their risk of developing cardiovascular disease. When they are in 10th, 11th and 12th grades, the students will be invited to take part in yearly follow-up checks.
Students whose screenings indicate the presence of medical conditions such as secondary hypertension or diabetes will be referred for further medical evaluation.
In both Baltimore and Syracuse, Ewart has worked with students at urban schools in research to understand social and environmental factors that undermine the health of lower income and minority youth. “Although these groups are at higher risk for cardiovascular disease than other Americans, less is known about their unique health problems and needs,” Ewart says.
In this initial phase of Project Heart, the emphasis will be on gathering information about teenagers’ health and levels of stress. The findings will help Ewart and his fellow researchers determine which groups of youths are at greatest risk as a result of emotional stress and what specific types of stress are involved. Ewart also hopes to find out what types of coping skills and environmental changes might reduce students’ stress levels and how to develop interventions to accomplish this.
“Emotional stress is partly a result of what’s happening in a person’s environment and partly a result of the person’s survival skills, the ability to handle things in ways that decrease stress,” Ewart says. “Eventually, we will be able to find out which youths are the most vulnerable to stress and teach them some helpful ways to cope.”