Scholar: Early stress lingers

A Harvard professor says childhood strains can affect lifelong physical health

Staff WriterJune 13, 2008 

— When children endure abuse or see horrific incidents, their stress can rise to levels that affect not only mental well-being but also lifelong physical health, a Harvard researcher told a gathering of state health leaders Thursday.

The opening address by Dr. Jack Shonkoff, a professor of child health and development, made clear how much was at stake during the subsequent presentation of the successes and shortcomings of early childhood care in North Carolina.

"As the number of childhood adverse experiences increases ... the likelihood of having depression as an adult goes up," Shonkoff said, adding that the incidence of heart disease, diabetes and cancer also show increases based on high levels of childhood stress.

Shonkoff spoke to national and state leaders in early childhood programs at the hearing for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's Commission to Build a Healthier America. The event in Raleigh was one of three the foundation will hold nationally.

He said researchers have found that stress hormones disrupt the architecture of a child's developing brain. In addition, chronic activation of the inflammatory response from stress is linked to the later development of cardiovascular disease and diabetes.

Latesha L. Foushee, a Chapel Hill resident who has worked with young children for 15 years, said she understood too well how stress can be mistaken for other problems.

"I was taken as a child who had behavioral issues, when at the time my mother was in an abusive relationship," Foushee said during a public comment period. "I went from being an A-B honor student to being a student who was failing."

Foushee told members of the commission that she is working to receive her undergraduate degree and to continue working in child care.

Participants from across North Carolina said the state needs more help for children with a variety of issues -- obesity, sickle cell anemia and other blood diseases, and the risks that come with being the child of teenage parents.

The hearing was designed to highlight promising early childhood programs and local initiatives. Among those praised was the FPG Child Development Institute at UNC-Chapel Hill. Parent Ricky Hill, whose 2-year-old son attends the center, said he has confidence his son is challenged there.

"With all the specialists around and all the health services around, we found early on that our son was starting to lag and get behind in his speech," Hill said. "It was easier to get that taken care of early on rather than waiting until he was in third grade."

After a two-year program of collecting information, the commission will recommend policy changes aimed at improving the health of Americans of all ages. or (919) 829-8929

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