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Attention, parents! Ongoing stress can affect your child’s brain

Ongoing stress during early childhood can harm children’s brains and body systems, say researchers.

fitness Updated: Jul 12, 2017 13:51 IST
Experts say the damage that happens to kids from toxic stress is as severe as the damage from meningitis or polio.
Experts say the damage that happens to kids from toxic stress is as severe as the damage from meningitis or polio.(Shutterstock)

A quiet, unsmiling little girl with big brown eyes crawls inside a carpeted cubicle, hugs a stuffed teddy bear tight, and turns her head away from the noisy classroom. The safe spaces, quiet times and breathing exercises for her and the other preschoolers at the Verner Center for Early Learning, USA, are designed to help kids cope with intense stress so they can learn. But experts hope there’s an even bigger benefit — protecting young bodies and brains from stress so persistent that it becomes toxic.

It’s no secret that growing up in tough circumstances can be hard on kids and lead to behaviour and learning problems. But researchers are discovering something different. Many believe that ongoing stress during early childhood — from grinding poverty, neglect, parents’ substance abuse and other adversity — can smoulder beneath the skin, harming kids’ brains and other body systems. And research suggests that can lead to some of the major causes of death and disease in adulthood, including heart attacks and diabetes.

“The damage that happens to kids from the infectious disease of toxic stress is as severe as the damage from meningitis or polio,” says Dr. Tina Hahn, a pediatrician in rural Caro, Michigan. She says her goal as a physician is to prevent toxic stress. Hahn routinely questions families about stresses at home, educates them about the risks and helps them find ways to manage.

Normal stress situations for a young child include getting a shot or hearing a loud thunderstorm. (Shutterstock)

The brain and disease-fighting immune system are not fully formed at birth and are potentially vulnerable to damage from childhood adversity, recent studies have shown. The first three years are thought to be the most critical, and children lacking nurturing parents or other close relatives to help them cope with adversity are most at risk.

Under normal stress situations — for a young child that could be getting a shot or hearing a loud thunderstorm — the stress response kicks in, briefly raising heart rate and levels of cortisol and other stress hormones. When stress is severe and ongoing, those levels may remain elevated, putting kids in a persistent “fight or flight” mode, said Harvard University neuroscientist Charles Nelson.

Recent studies suggest that kind of stress changes the body’s metabolism and contributes to internal inflammation, which can raise risk for developing diabetes and heart disease. In 2015, Brown University researchers reported finding elevated levels of inflammatory markers in saliva of children who had experienced abuse or other adversity.

Toxic stress is not the same as post-traumatic stress disorder. PTSD is a distinct mental condition that can result from an extremely traumatic event, including combat, violence or sexual abuse. Experts say it can occur in adults and children who live with persistent toxic stress, including children in war-torn countries, urban kids who’ve been shot or live in violence-plagued neighborhoods, and those who have been physically or sexually abused.

Much of the recent interest stems from landmark U.S. government-led research published in 1998 called the Adverse Childhood Experiences study. It found that adults exposed to neglect, poverty, violence, substance abuse, parents’ mental illness and other domestic dysfunction were more likely than others to have heart problems, diabetes, depression and asthma. A follow-up 2009 study found that adults with six or more adverse childhood experiences died nearly 20 years earlier than those with none.

Some children seem resistant to effects from toxic stress. Harvard’s Nelson works with a research network based at Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child that is seeking to find telltale biomarkers in kids who are affected — in saliva, blood or hair —that could perhaps be targets for drugs or other treatment to prevent or reduce stress-related damage. That research is promising but results are likely years off, says Dr. Jack Shonkoff, the center’s director.

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