Toxic stress can harm children’s lifelong health
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.