UNC Greensboro’s Dr. Laurie Wideman is adamant: When it comes to cardiovascular disease, it matters what parents are doing with their children, and it starts younger than they may expect.
The Safrit-Ennis Distinguished Professor of Kinesiology is part of a team that is looking at how self-regulation – our ability to manage our emotions and behaviors appropriately – in childhood impacts cardiometabolic risk development in adolescents.
It’s a massive undertaking funded by a five-year, $3.6 million grant from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. Yet it was a chance conversation between Wideman and fellow faculty member Dr. Susan Calkins that sparked the work.
“We have to help our kids be better self-regulators. … It’s important that we start to pattern healthy habits for our kids.”
Calkins and a team had been working for years on the RIGHT Track study, a project examining self-regulation and psychosocial outcomes in children over time. The human development and family studies professor had noticed that many of the children were becoming obese, and she began to wonder if there was a relationship between obesity and self-regulatory behaviors.
“Susan mentioned some of the results, and said she wasn’t exactly sure what was going on,” Wideman said. “I thought, ‘this is amazing – no one in our field has this kind of rich data set involving hundreds of families across time.’”
Wideman teamed up with Calkins and other UNCG researchers – Dr. Cheryl Lovelady and Dr. Lenka Shriver in nutrition, Dr. Susan Keane in psychology, and former UNCG Professor Lilly Shanahan – to focus on health outcomes in a second study: RIGHT Track Health.
There is a lot of data in human development literature regarding self-regulation, but very little on related health outcomes.
In kinesiology, there’s been significant work on health-related cardiometabolic risk in adolescence. “But what our field is lacking is historic information about why certain kids may have higher risks than others,” Wideman says.
“This study allows us to look at this problem from a cross-disciplinary perspective.”
Here’s what they’ve found so far: Children who have poor self-regulation are more likely to have poor cardiometabolic outcomes – obesity, hypertension, insulin resistance, etc. – in adolescence. Children that showed high emotion regulation at age two only had a 5.5 percent chance of being in the high risk cardiometabolic group 14 years later.
“It makes sense that children who have trouble regulating emotion and behavior may not be good at regulating what they eat, how much sleep they get, and how active they are,” says Wideman.
Wideman’s team is now working to secure additional funding to follow these individuals into adulthood. Ultimately, the goal is to develop prevention and intervention strategies that help people become better self-regulators and minimize poor health outcomes.
But that’s still years down the road. Given the study’s findings, what should parents be doing now?
“We have to help our kids be better self-regulators,” Wideman says. “It will look different for every child, but parents should be aware of this. It’s important that we start to pattern healthy habits for our kids.”
The post originally appeared in UNCG Research Magazine as part of a larger story on cardiovascular disease research. To read more and to view additional images, visit researchmagazine.uncg.edu.
Story by Alyssa Bedrosian, University Communications
Photography by Martin W. Kane, University Communications