Childhood Adversity Could Negatively Affect Your Health as an Adult

Playing How Childhood Adversity Can Harm Health Later in Life

The newly appointed and very first Surgeon General of California, Dr. Nadie Burke Harris, joins The Doctors to discuss an issue she thinks is the biggest health crisis of our time: childhood adversity. She explains there is more science now showing how what happens in early childhood impacts us throughout our lifetimes.

Watch: How Woman Healed after Childhood Abuse

She shares the findings of a research study conducted by the CDC and Kaiser that looked at over 17,000 participants and asked them about 10 categories of adverse childhood experiences:

  • physical, emotional, or sexual abuse
  • physical or emotional neglect
  • growing up in a household with a parent who was mentally ill, substance dependent, incarcerated, parental separation or divorce, or domestic violence

Researchers found those adverse childhood experiences were far more common than expected. Two-thirds of the population had experienced at least one adverse childhood experience (ACE) and one in eight had experienced four or more.

The second finding was the dose-response relationship between ACEs and health outcomes. Someone with four or more ACEs had double the risk of heart disease, two and half times the risk of stroke, chronic lung disease risk more than tripled, and in California, someone with four or more ACEs had an eleven times higher risk of Alzheimer's

Dr. Burke Harris explains the previous thinking was those who grew up with difficult childhoods would be more likely to drink or smoke, and doing those things would lead to poor health and disease, but the scientific analysis showed that only counts for half of the risk. In childhood, when kids are exposed to high doses of adversity it activates their stress response, which releases the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones impact everything from brain development to the way our DNA is read and transcribed. These long-term changes are now referred to as the "toxic stress response."

The ways to try and change this are through early detection and intervention. Dr. Burke Harris says both are critically important. She believes every doctor and clinical professional in primary care should be screening children for ACEs. California is leading the charge; in 2020, every child on Medicaid will be screened for ACEs.  

Watch: Does Excess Stress Increase Cancer Risk?

Being a parent or caregiver who fosters a safe, stable and nurturing environment can have the reverse, positive effect on children. When kids feel loved they release the hormone oxytocin, which inhibits the stress response. OB/GYN Dr. Nita Landry adds how important it is to break the cycle if you, as the parent, came from childhood with ACEs. You need to get the proper support to be your best self and to not make your kid have the same experience.

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