Childhood trauma leads to many adult health problems

Evidence continues to mount that suffering multiple traumas during childhood greatly increases a person’s risk of physical and mental health problems as an adult. Dr. Robert Anda of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shared some of the relevant research with an audience of Iowa policy-makers, educators, and public health officials this week.  

Tony Leys reported on Anda’s presentation for the Des Moines Register. Excerpt:

Social traumas cause persistent stress on young children, releasing body chemicals that can stall growth of healthy brain cells, Anda said.

High-tech scans have shown that important areas of the brain tend to be less active in people who went through several such traumas.

The damage can lead to later struggles in the classroom and in social situations, and it apparently can lead to unhealthy behaviors, such as smoking, drug abuse and early and promiscuous sex.

Anda helped lead a landmark study of 17,000 California residents in the 1990s, which produced startling connections between family traumas people suffered as children and the health and social problems they developed as adults.

People who suffered several childhood traumas were much more likely to have heart trouble, obesity, sleeping disorders and liver disease, and to have become pregnant as teens. They also were much more likely to suffer depression or other mental illnesses and to have attempted suicide.

Compared to those who reported no childhood trauma, people with several traumas were seven times more likely to have been victims of domestic violence, and more than twice as likely to fail a grade in school.

One of the most striking findings was that people who suffered several childhood traumas were 40 times more likely to inject themselves with heroin or other intravenous drugs.

Anda also noted that going through multiple childhood traumas can reduce a person’s life expectancy by as much as 20 years.

A sidebar accompanying Leys’ article lists ten examples of traumatic childhood events:

1. Drug or alcohol addiction in household

2. Parents separated or divorced

3. Depression or other mental illness in household

4. Mother or stepmother battered

5. Criminal behavior in household

6. Psychological abuse

7. Physical abuse

8. Sexual abuse

9. Emotional neglect

10. Physical neglect

Many researchers have found that child abuse victims are at greater risk for mental health problems, including depression and post-traumatic stress disorder as well as eating disorders and suicidal behavior. Click here for more data on that subject.

The more public health researchers learn, the more imperative it becomes to improve our strategies for preventing child abuse and getting victims of trauma the help they need. Protecting even one child could spare an adult decades of misery, expensive chronic health problems, and premature death.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services publishes a resource guide for “Preventing Child Maltreatment and Promoting Well-Being.” This page covers six preventive factors that can reduce the incidence of child abuse: “nurturing and attachment,” “knowledge of parenting and child development,” “parental resilience,” “social connections,” “concrete supports for parents,” and “social and emotional competence of children.”

The pediatric community is becoming aware that doctors can do more to address the sources of “toxic stress” in a young child’s life.

Policy-makers can learn a lot from this research. Speaking to his Iowa audience,

Anda also recommended that school leaders and juvenile-justice officials consider childhood trauma as a possible explanation for anti-social behavior. Too often, he said, they suspend or jail kids without trying to help them understand and deal with the root causes of their problems.

“I think our education and justice system tends to make it worse,” he said. He urged authorities to switch from a mindset of “what’s wrong with you?” to one of “what happened to you?”

I hope the state government officials and lawmakers who attended this presentation will act on some of Anda’s recommendations, either through the executive branch or during the next legislative session. Assuming Marti Anderson is elected to the Iowa House from the new district 36 in Des Moines, she would be a perfect choice to take the lead on these issues. Child abuse prevention was a strong focus of her career as a social worker and head of the Iowa Attorney General’s Crime Victim Assistance Division.

Share any relevant thoughts in this thread.

Tags: Children, Health
  • This makes too much sense.

    Legislators’ usual response:

    Too often, he said, they suspend or jail kids without trying to help them understand and deal with the root causes of their problems.

    (When I read the title, I thought this was going to be about football and the increasing evidence for health and cognitive problems from repeated concussions — another form of child abuse.)…

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