Adverse experiences in childhood — such as the death of a parent, growing up in poverty, physical or sexual abuse, or having a parent with a psychiatric illness — have been associated with physical and mental health problems later in life. But new research at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis has shown that multiple adverse experiences in early childhood are linked to depression and physical health problems in kids as young as 9 to 15. Further, the researchers have identified a potential pathway in the brain to explain how such stressful experiences influence poor health in kids.
The researchers found that a key brain structure involved in regulating emotions and decision-making is smaller in kids who have lived through three or more adverse experiences before the age of 8, compared with kids whose lives were more stable. Young children who faced multiple adverse experiences also were 15 percent more likely to develop severe depression by their preteen and early teen years and 25 percent more likely to have physical health problems, such as asthma and gastrointestinal disorders. Due to the health problems, these kids were more likely to miss school.
The new findings are published Oct. 30 in the journal JAMA Pediatrics.
“We did not expect we would see health problems in children so young,” said senior investigator and Washington University child psychiatrist Joan L. Luby, MD. “Our findings demonstrate how powerful the psychosocial environment can be. A child’s brain doesn’t develop based solely on its genetic infrastructure. It’s influenced by the stresses of poverty, violence, the loss of a parent, and other adverse experiences, which together can have serious health consequences evident as early as the teen and preteen years.”
The study involved 119 children, who were ages 3 to 6 when the project began. The researchers tracked adverse experiences in the kids’ lives — which also included experiences such as natural disasters, a parent’s arrest, or a parent with a serious illness requiring hospitalization. The children in the study averaged more than five such experiences before the age of 8.
The researchers also performed multiple MRI brain scans of these children when they were ages 6 to 13. The first scans, performed when the children reached school age, showed that the inferior frontal gyrus was smaller in children who had more adverse experiences. The researchers also determined that the structure appears to be part of a pathway through which the stresses of adverse childhood experiences may influence mental and physical health.