Editors’ Note Appended
Imagine if scientists discovered a toxic substance that increased the risks of cancer, diabetes and heart, lung and liver disease for millions of people. Something that also increased one’s risks for smoking, drug abuse, suicide, teen pregnancy, sexually transmitted disease, domestic violence and depression — and simultaneously reduced the chances of succeeding in school, performing well on a job and maintaining stable relationships? It would be comparable to hazards like lead paint, tobacco smoke and mercury. We would do everything in our power to contain it and keep it far away from children. Right?
Well, there is such a thing, but it’s not a substance. It’s been called “toxic stress.” For more than a decade, researchers have understood that frequent or continual stress on young children who lack adequate protection and support from adults, is strongly associated with increases in the risks of lifelong health and social problems, including all those listed above.
In the late 1990s, Vincent Felitti and Robert Anda conducted a landmark study that examined the effects of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) — including abuse, neglect, domestic violence and family dysfunction — on 17,000 mainly white, predominately well-educated, middle class people in San Diego. They found a powerful connection between the level of adversity faced and the incidence of many health and social problems. They also discovered that ACEs were more common than they had expected. (About 40 percent of respondents reported two or more ACEs, and 25 percent reported three or more.) Since then, similar surveys have been conducted in several states, with consistent findings.
In the years since, advances in biology, neuroscience, epigenetics and other fields have shed light on the mechanisms behind this phenomenon. “What the science is telling us now is how experiencegets into the brain as it’s developing its basic architecture and how it gets into the cardiovascular system and the immune system,” explains Jack P. Shonkoff, director of the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, where the term toxic stress was coined. “These insights provide an opportunity to think about new ways we might try to reduce the academic achievement gap and health disparities — and not just do the same old things.”
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