Report identifies early childhood conditions that lead to adult health disparities

June 2, 2009

The origins of many adult diseases can be traced to early negative experiences associated with social class and other markers of disadvantage. Confronting the causes of adversity before and shortly after birth may be a promising way to improve adult health and reduce premature deaths, researchers argue in a paper published today in The Journal of the American Medical Association. These adversities establish biological "memories" that weaken physiological systems and make individuals vulnerable to problems that can lie dormant for years.

"Improving the developmental trajectory of a child by helping the parents and improving the home environment is probably the single most important thing we can do for the health of that child," says co-author Bruce McEwen, Alfred E. Mirsky Professor and head of the Harold and Margaret Milliken Hatch Laboratory of Neuroendocrinology at The Rockefeller University. "Adverse childhood experience is one of the largest contributors to such chronic health problems as diabetes and obesity, psychiatric disorders, drug abuse - almost every major public health challenge we face."

In the report, McEwen and his co-authors distinguish between levels of stress experienced by young children. "Positive" and "tolerable" stress, with the support of adults, help the body and brain learn to cope with brief situations of adversity, while "toxic" stress, which can disrupt brain architecture and other organ systems, increases the risk for stress-related disease and cognitive impairment well into adulthood. Major risk factors for toxic stress include extreme poverty, recurrent physical and/or emotional abuse, chronic neglect, severe maternal depression, parental substance abuse, and family violence.

An intervention to relieve toxic stress that children experience early in life could not only affect their own individual well-being and longevity but also improve overall societal health, the report concludes. In particular, the researchers highlight three findings and propose promising applications in health policy and clinical practice:

  • Adult disease prevention begins with reducing toxic stress in early childhood, as a reduction in the number and severity of early adverse experiences will lead to a decrease in the prevalence of a wide range of health problems.
  • High-quality early care and education programs can benefit lifelong health, not just learning, by providing safe, stable, responsive environments and evidence-based treatments for family mental health problems.
  • Child welfare services represent an opportunity for lifelong health promotion by augmenting their exclusive focus on child safety and custody with comprehensive developmental assessments and appropriate interventions by skilled professionals.
"Health care reform is clearly essential for assuring universal access to needed medical care," says co-author Jack Shonkoff, founding director of the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University. "Yet we also know that health disparities linked to social class, race, and ethnicity are not primarily about health care access or quality, since these inequalities persist in countries that provide health care for all their citizens. These disparities are rooted in where and how we live, work, and play. Science is now telling us that they're also about how we as a society treat our youngest members."

Source: Rockefeller University (news : web)

Explore further: A higher risk of obesity for children neglected by parents

Related Stories

A higher risk of obesity for children neglected by parents

November 13, 2007

Strategies for decreasing a child’s risk for obesity often focus on improving eating habits and maintaining a high level of physical activity. While this is one way to address the issue, another way to reduce the risk of ...

Women who suffered child abuse spend more on health care

February 19, 2008

Middle-aged women who suffered physical or sexual abuse as children spend up to one-third more than average in health-care costs, according to a long-term study of more than 3,000 women. Even decades after the abuse ended, ...

New approach needed to tackle child abuse and neglect

August 25, 2008

Leading child advocates have called for a new approach to tackling child abuse and neglect amid rising rates of abuse notifications and children being brought into State care. The arguments for a new approach are set out ...

Vulnerable children fare well with relatives

January 21, 2009

Placing vulnerable children with relatives is a viable option, a new study by Cochrane Researchers suggests. In view of several recent high profile child abuse cases, the study may have important policy implications.

Recommended for you

How the finch changes its tune

August 3, 2015

Like top musicians, songbirds train from a young age to weed out errors and trim variability from their songs, ultimately becoming consistent and reliable performers. But as with human musicians, even the best are not machines. ...

Machine Translates Thoughts into Speech in Real Time

December 21, 2009

( -- By implanting an electrode into the brain of a person with locked-in syndrome, scientists have demonstrated how to wirelessly transmit neural signals to a speech synthesizer. The "thought-to-speech" process ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.