As you are reading this article, somewhere scores of young children are suffering. Not through illness, but through the behavior of adults. The shocking thing is, millions of our most vulnerable fellow human beings are subjected to unspeakable horrors on a daily basis.
We all know that, but do we realize the full consequences of what clinicians call “early childhood adversity”? You will be shocked to find out.
Early childhood adversity can include toxic stressors like poverty, food insecurity, abuse, neglect and being forcibly separated from a loving primary carer.
Science has found that these experiences can adversely affect health and well-being across the course of a person’s life.
According to AAP NEWS (the official newsmagazine of the American Academy of Pediatrics), studies have shown that there is an association between childhood adversity and adult impairments. In fact, early relationships, experiences and environmental influence can leave a lasting effect on the genetic predispositions that affect learning as well as physical and mental health.
Two complementary biological mechanisms have emerged that explain the links between early childhood experience and how the life of a victim of early childhood adversity might unfold.
The first comes from advances in neuroscience and the biology of stress that show how experiences interact with genetic predisposition in ways that affect a variety of organs and metabolic systems, including which neural connections in the developing brain are strengthened and which are weakened or eliminated.
For example, when a child is constantly stressed and there are no protective relationships available, as in the case of toxic stress, caused for instance by being forcibly removed from parents, the child can develop extreme levels of cortisol, which disrupts circuits in the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus and elevates inflammatory responses, which affect the cardiovascular system.
This is serious and it’s not all.
This early adversity becomes part of the body through lasting “biological memories” that result in serious physical and behavioral consequences.
The second and related mechanism at the molecular level is epigenetics. Epigenetics refers to external modifications to DNA that turn genes “on” or “off.”
New research is showing that genes are not biologically fixed, but that experience can affect which parts of the genetic program are activated and which are suppressed.
A 2012 technical report by AAP states that advances in neuroscience, molecular biology, and genomics have come to the conclusion that early experiences are built into our bodies. In addition, severe adversity can produce physiological disruptions or biological memories that undermine the development of the body’s stress response systems and affect the developing brain, cardiovascular system, immune system, and metabolic regulatory controls.
Take a moment to digest that: early childhood adversity has extremely negative consequences for a person’s subsequent health on all levels. What we experience early in life can make us sick later in life.
These findings even suggest that childhood adversity in various forms may increase a person’s cancer risk.
These negative physiological consequences, like an impaired immune system or heart problems, can persist far into adulthood and lead to lifelong poor physical and mental health.
Here’s the thing: the research suggests that many adult diseases are, in fact, developmental disorders that begin early in life.
How about that? Could a person’s high blood pressure today be the result of a traumatic childhood experience decades ago?
Toxic stress, like being forcibly removed from loved ones or being in a dangerous situation like a war zone, disrupts the developing brain and adversely affects the development of other organ systems in the body.
One of the conclusions of the report is that toxic stress can lead to potentially permanent changes in learning, behavior, and physiology (a hyper-responsive or chronically activated stress response).
These physiological disruptions can lead to stress-related chronic diseases and increase the likelihood of the adoption of unhealthy lifestyles that worsen the situation.
These results make one think about the lifelong costs of childhood toxic stress, the prevalence today of so much maladaptive behavior in society and what might be at the root of it.