Children who have experienced three or more stressful events are six times more likely to suffer from a mental, physical, or learning disorder than children who have never faced a traumatic experience, and these health problems may take hold immediately, according to a University of Florida (UF) study.
Past research has indicated that children who experience traumatic events are at greater risk for having poor health as adults, but the current study shows that these negative effects may occur much sooner.
“The kids who have the highest number of adverse experiences have the highest likelihood of having multiple conditions,” said Melissa Bright, Ph.D., a research coordinator for the UF Institute of Child Health Policy, or ICHP.
“It is not one poor health outcome; it is a whole slew of poor outcomes across the board.”
UF researchers analyzed data from the National Survey for Child Health, which includes information on nearly 96,000 children across the United States.
The survey listed the number of adverse experiences the children faced, including parental divorce, economic hardship, exposure to domestic and neighborhood violence, poor caregiver mental health, exposure to drug abuse, and having a parent in jail. The parents also reported on any conditions their children had.
Between 11 and 24 percent of parents reported their children had been diagnosed with at least one disorder. About four percent said their children had at least one disorder from all three categories — mental, learning, and physical.
Children who had faced adverse experiences were more likely to have a disorder in every category than children who had not.
“The reason could be chronic toxic stress, which triggers changes to the child’s developing neuroendocrine and immune systems,” Bright said. “These changes can lead to poor regulation of the stress response and lowered ability to fight disease.”
In 2012, the American Academy of Pediatrics released a policy statement endorsing increased efforts to combat the effects of toxic stress on healthy brain growth in children.
“These adverse experiences are affecting multiple domains of health simultaneously,” Bright said. “We need a holistic approach to tackle this issue.”
The researchers don’t yet know, however, if those negative experiences caused the health conditions to occur, Bright said of the study.
“It is also possible that having a child with multiple health conditions puts serious financial and emotional strains on families, making them more susceptible to adverse experiences such as caregiver mental illness and divorce,” she said. “We are currently collecting data for a new study in which we plan to examine this possibility.”
Bright hopes to further investigate the neuroendocrine and immune system changes and their link to poor health outcomes during childhood.
“If we can identify these changes early on, then we can develop interventions to hopefully prevent some of these poor outcomes,” she said.
Source: University of Florida