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Early childhood trauma linked to adult disease

Have you or any of your family members, friends or colleagues ever had a heart attack or been diagnosed with heart disease, hypertension or diabetes?

by Tarrin McGhee
Special to the Tri-State Defender

Have you or any of your family members, friends or colleagues ever had a heart attack or been diagnosed with heart disease, hypertension or diabetes?

Do you or do you know someone that suffers from high blood pressure, obesity, depression or addiction?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, there is a possibility that you or someone you know endured traumatic experiences as a child that may have predetermined or caused these unfortunate circumstances to occur.

According to early childhood expert, therapist and author Robin Karr-Morse, childhood trauma triggers toxic stress responses that can pave the way to chronic illnesses that affect and claim the lives of millions of adults across the United States each year.

In her latest book – “Scared Sick: The Role of Childhood Trauma in Adult Disease” – Karr-Morse presents research that provides a framework for understanding how a child’s mental, emotional, social and physical well-being is directly linked to their adult health.

In an eye-opening luncheon hosted by The Urban Child Institute last week to increase community knowledge on the topic, Karr-Morse facilitated an insightful and interactive book discussion on childhood trauma and its impacts on children, adults, families and communities.

In “Scared Sick,” it is reported that an estimated 26 percent of all children in the United States will experience or witness a traumatic event prior to age four.

And according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), almost 60 percent of American adults say that they endured abuse or other severe difficulties.

Research is still limited, but medical studies and expert opinions increasingly cite early experiences as a reason for chronic illnesses that are generally diagnosed later in life. But childhood trauma remains an often over-looked cause for adult disease.

At the luncheon, Karr-Morse offered her perspective on why this is the case.

“We are a nation of idiots about infancy,” she said.

“We don’t get how the central nervous system affects everything that we become…we don’t get how vulnerable we are when we enter the world (as an adult) without preparation.”

It has long been proven by physicians, therapists and researchers alike that without intervention or treatment, childhood trauma can have devastating effects throughout adulthood.

Traumatic experiences for a child may include emotional, physical or sexual abuse, death of a loved one or violence in the home or community. Examples of early childhood trauma may include premature birth, complications during pregnancy or birth, and maternal depression.

“These conditions have an impact on baby brains no less harmful than abuse or neglect,” Karr-Morse said.

But for decades, adult diseases that attack the central nervous system, immune system, or other physical mechanisms in the body have often been attributed to one’s genetic makeup, Other suspects have been poor dieting habits, lifestyle choices, or aging.  

In recent years, medical professionals, scientists and sociologists have concluded that childhood trauma should now also be considered as a possible contributor.

In “Scared Sick,” Karr-Marse and co-author Meredith Wiley explore in depth how poor adult health outcomes can be traced to an individual’s upbringing. They also reveal how chronic fear and toxic stress in children cause negative emotional and behavioral patterns in adults.

“What happens to us emotionally happens to us physically,” Karr-Morse explained to guests at the luncheon. “Trauma is fear frozen in the body…adult systems are well insulated (for recovery) but for babies and kids, little traumas can accumulate and overwhelm the child.”

Research on how early emotions and experiences help to shape the central nervous, endocrine and immune systems – systems that protect our health and prevent chronic illnesses – is also presented in “Scared Sick” that helps to define the critical role that childhood trauma plays in the onset of many health challenges that adults experience.

Karr-Morse believes that early detection and intervention of childhood trauma is the key to reversing poor health trends and to improving local and national health statistics.

“Memphis has made great investments (in early care) but it’s not enough. If we recognize the elephant in the room, we can begin to do something about it,” she continued. “We need trauma informed intervention measures.

During her presentation, Karr-Morse described how early intervention measures such as positive parenting, high quality care and positive human relationships can help to reduce toxic stress responses in children and counteract their effects.  

She also discussed how childhood trauma not only impacts the individual, but also has a significant bearing on societal concerns such as poverty, crime and education – issues that are all too familiar in the Greater Memphis area.

Through data-driven research, The Urban Child Institute has discovered that much of our city’s challenges can be addressed and confronted if we focus on implementing initiatives that promote optimal brain development, and work to protect the health and well-being of children during the critical ages of zero to three.

By initiating prevention-based strategies, and launching intervention programs that focus on local children, The Urban Child Institute serves as a vital resource to shed light on the importance of reducing childhood trauma in Memphis and Shelby County in order to help our children and our communities succeed and thrive.

At the close of the luncheon, Eugene K. Cashman, Jr., president and chief executive officer of The Urban Child Institute encouraged guests to use their influence to increase understanding of the role that childhood trauma plays in adult disease and also the future of our city by spreading the information that they received.

“Science is fundamental to understanding that if you’re not laying the foundation in the first three years, the results that we have now will continue,” he said. “Accept knowledge as a moral responsibility to do something about it.”

 

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