Researchers at Ohio State University have been looking at stress and health for 30 years and can show that being chronically stressed wears down your immune system and makes you more likely to become ill and disease-prone.
They also found that children who had difficult childhoods eg through being abused or neglected, could develop hyperactive stress responses which could kick in later in life making them more vulnerable when subject to stress as adults.
And at the Pittsburgh Mind-Body Centre their research shows that early childhood experiences of stress or poverty influence the chances that we’ll develop chronic diseases as adults – whether or not we have a poor diet, don’t exercise, drink in excess, or smoke.
Cardiovascular disease is a case in point. If the family rented rather than owned a home, if the parents didn’t go to college or had less prestigious jobs, then the children’s own cardiovascular health was more likely to be compromised in adulthood – regardless of how successful they became and how much they had achieved on their own as adults.
A year ago it was reported that more than 20% of American children were living in poverty, more than most industrialised nations and the highest level in America for 20 years.
The non-profit Foundation for Child Development has tracked children’s overall quality of life since 1975 using 28 indicators of well-being, according to an article in the September issue of Monitor on Psychology published by the American Psychological Association.
The foundation predicts large increases in the levels of child poverty with as many as 1/2 million children becoming homeless this year. Even if the economy recovers the impact of the recession on the poor children of today could be profound. They face an increased risk of engaging in violent crime, illegal drug use, and of experiencing chronic health problems such as obesity.
Research shows that “children who slip into poverty, even for a short time, suffer long-term setbacks even when their families regain their economic footing” according to the foundation’s president psychologist Dr Ruby Takanishi. And it is worse for children under 10 years of age who, in addition to suffering from health problems such as asthma and anaemia, are more likely to experience negative educational outcomes.
Through lack of mental stimulation and increased stress and their brains may not develop in the same way as children from higher income families. Last year research at the University of California, Berkeley, found a difference between high and low-income children. In 9 and 10 year olds from poorer homes their EEG readings showed less pre-frontal cortex brain activity compared to children from higher income families – even though there was no neural damage nor pre-natal exposure to alcohol or drugs.
As long ago as 1995 research showed that the average vocabulary of 3 year-olds from professional families was twice as large as that of 3 year-olds on welfare. Since then other research has confirmed that poverty affects children in other ways as well as in language skills including poor impulse control, poor working memory, and poorer selective attention.
These results have been attributed to the impact of stressful home environments and lack of parental education in poorer homes. There is evidence that memory ability is related to the amount of parental nurturing.
And there are programmes in place such as the Tools of the Mind curriculum, developed at Metropolitan State College at Denver, which helps children control their impulses and control behaviour so that, for example, children learn to be good listeners.
Another intervention, at the University of Oregon; Parents and Children Making Connections – Highlighting Attention, trains children and parents in sustained concentration and impulse management, which enables people to learn new skills more effectively, by making them more aware of their own bodies, attention, and emotions, and how to focus on one thing at a time.
The Oregon researchers have found their programme improves IQ, message comprehension, and social skills and leaves the parents less stressed. They have produced a DVD for parents, teachers, and policy-makers that explores brain development in children. It’s available at www.changingbrains.org.
Those of you familiar with the concept of emotional intelligence will recognise common features in these programmes such as self-awareness and self-control. I have another post on this; “Emotional Intelligence, self-control, and those marshmallows”
Another factors is how often you move house. Moving frequently as a child can have long-lasting effects on their well-being as adults.
A study of 7,000+ American adults by the University of Virginia, published in The Journal of Personality & Social Psychology (Vol 98 No 6), found that the more they had changed cities or neighbourhoods as children, the more likely they were to report lower satisfaction and well-being. They were also more likely to die younger.
And yet more evidence from researchers in Holland who have come up with the first real evidence that early nutrition effects future health (BBC news: Future heart health “shaped by diet”).
A report in the European Heart Journal looked at the impact of the 1944-45 famine in the Netherlands. Women who were between 10 and 17 at the time were followed up in 2007.
Those who had been severely affected by the famine and who survived on 400-800 calories a day had a 27% greater risk of developing heart disease than those who had sufficient food.
The British Heart Foundation said it demonstrated the need for children and young adults to have healthy diets to protect their long-term health.
Originally posted on EI 4U