Adversity in childhood is linked to mental and physical health throughout life

BMJ 2020

Charles A NelsonRichard David Scott, Zulfiqar A Bhutta, Nadine Burke HarrisAndrea Danese & Muthanna Samara

The prevalence of “toxic stress” and huge downstream consequences in disease, suffering, and financial costs make prevention and early intervention crucial, say Charles A Nelson and colleagues

Today’s children face enormous challenges, some unforeseen in previous generations, and the biological and psychological toll is yet to be fully quantified. Climate change, terrorism, and war are associated with displacement and trauma. Economic disparities cleave a chasm between the haves and have nots, and, in the US at least, gun violence has reached epidemic proportions. Children may grow up with a parent with untreated mental illness. Not least, a family member could contract covid-19 or experience financial or psychological hardship associated with the pandemic.

The short and long term consequences of exposure to adversity in childhood are of great public health importance. Children are at heightened risk for stress related health disorders, which in turn may affect adult physical and psychological health and ultimately exert a great financial toll on our healthcare systems.

Growing evidence indicates that in the first three years of life, a host of biological (eg, malnutrition, infectious disease) and psychosocial (eg, maltreatment, witnessing violence, extreme poverty) hazards can affect a child’s developmental trajectory and lead to increased risk of adverse physical and psychological health conditions. Such impacts can be observed across multiple systems, affecting cardiovascular, immune, metabolic, and brain health, and may extend far beyond childhood, affecting life course health.123 These effects may be mediated in various direct and indirect ways, presenting opportunities for mitigation and intervention strategies.

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