Chronic or prolonged stress exposure in childhood can alter structural and functional brain development, leading to mental and physical illness and alterations of psychobiological stress systems in adulthood. Recently, attenuation in stress reactivity of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis and cardiovascular system have been related to the number of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). We set out to investigate the association of ACE duration and age of ACE occurrence on stress reactivity.
104 women in the age range 18-25 years (mean=21.7) free of mental and physical illness underwent psychosocial stress testing with the Montreal Imaging Stress Task (MIST). Free saliva cortisol and heart rate were assessed repeatedly before and after the MIST.
Number of ACEs was associated with attenuated cortisol and heart rate responses to stress in a dose-response relationship. Whereas overall duration of ACEs was significantly associated with an attenuated cortisol response, the specific age of first ACE occurrence did not contribute further to the dampened stress response.
ACEs are associated with blunted endocrine and cardiovascular stress reactivity in young and healthy women. Adverse life events in childhood, particularly if they occur repeatedly and chronically, show a strong association with alterations in stress reactivity in adulthood, potentially predisposing for later mental or physical disorders.