Altered reactivity to stress, either in the direction of exaggerated reactivity or diminished reactivity, may signal a dysregulation of systems intended to maintain homeostasis and a state of good health. Evidence has accumulated that diminished reactivity to psychosocial stress may signal poor health outcomes. One source of diminished cortisol and autonomic reactivity is the experience of adverse rearing during childhood and adolescence. The Oklahoma Family Health Patterns Project has examined a cohort of 426 healthy young adults with and without a family history of alcoholism. Regardless of family history, persons who had experienced high degrees of adversity prior to age 16 had a constellation of changes including reduced cortisol and heart rate reactivity, diminished cognitive capacity, and unstable regulation of affect, leading to behavioral impulsivity and antisocial tendencies. We present a model whereby this constellation of physiological, cognitive, and affective tendencies is consistent with altered central dopaminergic activity leading to changes in brain function that may foster impulsive and risky behaviors. These in turn may promote greater use of alcohol other drugs along with adopting poor health behaviors. This model provides a pathway from early life adversity to low stress reactivity that forms a basis for risky behaviors and poor health outcomes.
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