Toxic stress can harm chil­dren’s life­long health

USA TODAY Weekend Extra - - FRONT PAGE - Jayne O’Don­nell

The 10-year-old girl suf­fered from per­sis­tent asthma, but the cause was un­clear. Then her mother thought of a pos­si­ble trig­ger. “Her asthma does seem to get worse when­ever her dad punches a hole in the wall,” she told Dr. Na­dine Burke Har­ris.

Har­ris, a San Fran­cisco pe­di­a­tri­cian, in­cludes the ex­am­ple in her new book, “The Deep­est Well,” to show the con­nec­tion be­tween what’s known as “toxic stress” and phys­i­cal health.

Med­i­cal pro­fes­sion­als and re­searchers have long stud­ied the im­pact of ad­verse child­hood ex­pe­ri­ences and life­long men­tal health and ad­dic­tion. Now aware­ness is grow­ing of the link to long-term phys­i­cal health.

The more ACEs a per­son suf­fers – di­vorce, do­mes­tic vi­o­lence, fam­ily mem­bers with ad­dic­tion – the higher the risk of prob­lems in learn­ing, men­tal and phys­i­cal health, even early death. Peo­ple with ACEs are more likely to ex­pe­ri­ence “toxic stress” – re­peated, ex­treme ac­ti­va­tion of their stress re­sponse.

Toxic stress af­fects the de­vel­op­ing brain, im­mune sys­tem, car­dio­vas­cu­lar sys­tem and meta­bolic reg­u­la­tory sys­tem, said Al Race, deputy di­rec­tor of the Cen­ter on the De­vel­op­ing Child at Har­vard. It dra­mat­i­cally in­creases the risk of hy­per­ten­sion, heart dis­ease and di­a­betes, among other con­di­tions.

Chil­dren with four or more ACEs are four times more likely to suf­fer from de­pres­sion in their life­times, eight times more likely to be­come al­co­holics and 20 times more likely to use in­tra­venous drugs, re­search shows. Those ex­posed to very high doses of ad­ver­sity with­out car­ing adults to help can have more than dou­ble the life­time risk of heart dis­ease and can­cer and a nearly 20-year dif­fer­ence in life ex­pectancy.

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