Want to predict a child’s future health? First measure their stress, says researcher
We’ve all been told that stress is harmful to our health. But new evidence suggests that children who suffer stressful or traumatic events could suffer life-long consequences.
The events are known as adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), which range from parental separation to sexual abuse. Researchers have discovered that they’re clear indictors of a child’s future health outcomes.
The culprit is the stress hormone cortisol, which is toxic to a child, said Jennifer Mervyn, a psychologist and ACE consultant.
“The impact on the brain is significant,” Mervyn said during an interview on CBC’s The Early Edition.
One study found that a male child with an ACE score of six is 4,600 per cent more likely to become an injection drug user versus a male child who has an ACE score of zero.
The findings were presented this week in Surrey’s health and technology district, which hosted a week-long event on advancements in brain research.
Listen to the full interview below.
Brains ‘want to change’
Researchers have discovered that cortisol can have a structural impact on a child’s brain, Mervyn said.
Children who accumulate trauma tend to develop a larger amygdala, which is the brain’s emotional response centre.
The good news, Mervyn said, is that children’s brains are malleable, meaning that damage inflicted by stress and trauma can be offset as a child matures into puberty.
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“[Brains] want to change, they want to heal,” she said. “The capacity to do so when you’re young is incredible.”
Treatments for kids can be found through various therapies and caring relationships with adults, Mervyn said.
Parents, too, can learn techniques that help them cope with their own stress and support and nurture their child.
“It really comes down to creating an environment where that child has been removed from that toxic stress,” Mervyn said.
Mervyn said the findings also point to the need for greater investment in youth mental health and substance abuse programs.