A new study is the first to point to brain changes that underlie poor health in some children who have suffered adversity. Increasing adverse experiences in childhood—such as gun violence, absent parents (both at work) news reports (e.g. the 9/11 bombing), violent games and TV, the death of a parent, growing up in poverty, physical or sexual abuse, or having a parent with a psychiatric illness(such as depression)—have been associated with physical and mental health problems later in life. But new research 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. They 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 in the journal JAMA Pediatrics. “We did not expect we would see health problems in children so young,” said the senior investigator. “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 researchers added: “People exposed to adversity early in life experience changes in the volume of the inferior frontal gyrus that probably can make children more vulnerable to behavioral issues and bad decision-making. We suspect that such changes contribute to poorer mental and physical health outcomes.”
The researchers found that when kids had three or more adverse experiences, they also had smaller brain volumes that, in turn, were associated with lower scores on a scale that measures how well a child expresses emotions. Poor emotional expression has been associated with depression and worse social and emotional outcomes.