Recent studies underscore the need for early interventions for children.
Chronic stress is an experience shared by so many Americans that it is at near epidemic levels. Because of its prevalence in our society, there has been a wealth of stress-related research published in the past 20 years.
We have learned that chronic stress is not only a problem for adults, but that it is pervasive among children as well. We’re starting to understand that the negative consequences of prolonged exposure to stress begin early, and often have a long-term impact on quality of life and general well-being.
Stress and Early Genetic Aging
A new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has found that chronic stress may cause premature genetic aging in children as young as 9, and that certain genetic variations can make a person more or less susceptible to this phenomenon.
For the study, Penn State University researchers looked at DNA of 9-year-old African American boys living in major US cities. These boys came from either extremely stressful environments or from privileged, nurturing environments. The researchers found that the boys who had been exposed to chronic stress had telomeres that were an average of 40% shorter than those who came from healthy home environments.
Telomeres are sequences of DNA that protect against chromosomal fraying, which is a natural occurrence that happens over time as cells divide. But fraying is exacerbated by stressful conditions, and scientists consider highly frayed chromosomes to be markers of greater susceptibility to a broad range of mental and physical illness. Longer telomeres, like those found in boys from advantaged situations, mean less chromosomal fraying has occurred. The fact that the boys from stressful environments had significantly shorter telomeres suggests that their life circumstances have disadvantaged them on a cellular level.
Other recent studies have led to similar conclusions about prolonged stress. Researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine found that chronic childhood stress and anxiety causes the amygdala to become enlarged, increasing the likelihood of mood disorders later in life. A study from Howard University found that children raised in single-parent households (a circumstance that tends to increase stress) were significantly more likely to develop high blood pressure.
Although these studies have focused on relatively small segments of the population, the implications are wide-reaching. With stress being as problematic as it is, it’s never been more important to work to reduce the level of chronic stress faced by the population as a whole — but this is particularly true when it comes to children. We know now that children who are disadvantaged by stressful situations at an early age are even more vulnerable to the effects of stress as they get older. This makes them more likely to fall victim crime, substance abuse, mental illness, and disease.
Fortunately, every day we are learning more and more about stress, anxiety, and mood disorders, and how to address these problems in children. As we develop more sophisticated and effective interventions for childhood stress and mental health issues, we help to ensure future generations of healthy, high-functioning adults.