Tuesday 4th March, 2008


David E Bratt, MD

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Child stress, adult disease

  • Beating children can make them very sick.
  • Stress is an inevitable part of life.

BEATING children can make those very same children sick. Yes, as children, we know that. The new news is that beating them in childhood can make them sick as adults. That means you, because most Trinidadians and Tobagonians adults have been beaten and beaten bad many times in their childhood.

It makes big-bellied, macho men of us, mature, deep-thinkers who care immensely for our children and show it by beating them whenever we get a chance to visit their mothers for a night or so and if the mothers don’t watch out, “we go beat them, too.”

Sick children, sick adults

These are the results of the largest study ever done on this topic, “The Effects of Childhood Stress on Health Across the Life Span,” by the US Department of Health & Human Services, Centre for Disease Control & Prevention, better known as the CDC, the “Sanctus sanctorum” of medical research in the USA.

Over 17,000 adults participated in the study, recently published. Some of the most titillating results were that 25 per cent of women and 16 per cent of men reported being sexually abused as children. Physical abuse, 27 per cent for women and 30 per cent for males. An average of 12 per cent of adults reported having seen their mothers being repeatedly and violently beaten.

The likelihood of an adverse health outcome in an adult being associated with early child abuse increased as the age of first molestation decreased and as the frequency, duration and intensity increased.

Stress down the line!

The thing is, stress is an inevitable part of life. Humans experience stress early, even before they are born. It helps children develop the skills they need to cope with and adapt to new and potentially threatening situations throughout life.

A certain amount of stress is normal and necessary for survival and success. This kind of stress helps children develop the necessary skills to grow into mature adults, capable of voting with their minds and not with their hair. Support from parents or other concerned and caring adults, familial or otherwise, is necessary for children to learn how to respond in a physically and emotionally healthy manner.

The beneficial aspects of stress diminish when it is severe enough to overwhelm a child’s ability to cope effectively.

Stress causes visible and invisible reactions in humans. The most common observable reaction is an increase in your heart rate and your blood pressure. This is caused by the secretion of “stress hormones,” especially cortisone and cortisone has the ability to affect the brain especially the developing brain.

There are three types of stress. Positive stress results from adverse experiences that are short-lived, for example, attending a day-care centre for the first time, getting a shot in the health centre, having a toy taken away or just meeting new people. All the child may experience is a transient increase in heart rate and minor perturbation in his or her hormone levels.

Tolerable stress refers to adverse experiences that are more intense but still relatively short-lived. Examples include the death of a loved one, a frightening accident or a family disruption, such as a fight in the bedroom or a divorce. If the child has the support of a caring adult, tolerable stress can usually be overcome, no matter the age of the child.

Toxic stress results from intense adverse experiences that are sustained over a long period of time, months or years. The typical example is child abuse, whether sexual, physical or emotional.

Children are unable to effectively manage this type of stress by themselves and since in many instances the adult who cares for them is the source of the stress, the problem is compounded. Stressed out by the very person who you love and who is supposed to love you back and lower your stress level. As a result, the stress response system gets activated for a very long time. This can lead to permanent damage to the brain and other organs.

Prolonged exposure to stress hormones can actually result in the development of a smaller brain. Toxic stress can disrupt the development of brain circuits as they are developing in childhood. This can cause the child to develop a low threshold for stress, becoming overly reactive to adverse experiences throughout life. High sustained levels of cortisone suppress the immune system, making the individual susceptible to a variety of infections and chronic health problems.

Some of the adult diseases associated with stressed children are alcoholism; depression; drug use; multiple sexual partners (this may be considered beneficial in T&T); suicide; heart attacks; liver disease and chronic lung disease.

Sustained high levels of cortisone can also damage a part of the brain called the hippocampus, responsible for learning and memory. These cognitive defects can continue into adulthood.

Is this the reason for our politician’s short term memory and seeming inability to learn from their mistakes? Local research would seem to be urgently needed. Hurry, we do not have much time.

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