February 8, 2012

The Long Shadow of Childhood Trauma

We hear a lot about the healthcare crisis – generally framed in economic terms.  But often lost in the haggling over cost figures and acrimonious debate about whether healthcare is the province of the government or the free market is a much more important and frightening reality – the poor state of health among our nation’s children.

Scared-Sick book coverIn a recently published book Scared Sick, Robin Kaar-Morse and Meredith Wiley provide sobering statistics about the state of children’s health in the US.  Their research, compiled from government and private studies, paints a grim picture.  For example:

  • Among the seven largest industrialized nations in the world, the US ranks last on infant mortality rates and longevity.
  • The overall well-being of American children ranks twentieth among twenty-one wealth democracies, behind Hungary, Greece and Poland.
  • One in three children born five years ago will develop diabetes in their lifetime.
  • Child abuse death rates are far higher in the US than in all of the seven largest developed countries; three times higher than Canada and eleven times higher than Italy.
  • Five children die every day as the result of child abuse; three out of four of these are under the age of four.
  • 15.5 percent of all babies born in the US are low birth weight and / or preterm at delivery.
  • Just over 20 percent of children either currently or at some point have had a seriously debilitating mental disorder.
  • An estimated 26 percent of all children in the US will witness a violent or traumatic event prior to age four.
  • One in one hundred infants is born with fetal alcohol syndrome, the leading preventable cause of mental retardation, birth defects and learning disabilities in the Western world.
  • Of children ages three to seventeen, 4.7 million have a learning disability.

(Page xv, Scared Sick, 2011.)

The scientific evidence is mounting that conflict and trauma can take a toll on our organs and biological regulatory systems during development and lead to serious health issues as adults. This should be reason enough to re-examine our nation’s healthcare priorities.  But work in a relatively new field of biology should provide an even stronger incentive.

frightened childResearch in the rapidly evolving area of epigenetics is hinting at biological mechanisms that link trauma experienced by one generation with diseases that develop in subsequent generations.  Epigenetics focuses on the way that cells facilitate or inhibit the expression of our genes.  Epigenetic functioning,unlike our genes, is more directly affected by environmental influences.  In some cases, it appears that epigenetic mechanisms damaged by environmental factors in one generation may be passed on to future generations.  This means there could be a generational echo to diseases provoked by conflict or trauma during childhood.  This is in addition to the psychological damage that often results in abused children turning into abusive parents.

As the rhetoric over healthcare in America ratchets up in this election year, we should look at the very real and long-term consequences of neglecting our children’s health.  As Herbert Ward observed, “Childhood abuse casts a shadow the length of a lifetime.”  And now, we suspect, that shadow may be much longer.



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