Can a Traumatic Childhood Make You Sick?

This week’s New Yorker includes an article that will be especially fascinating to adoptive and foster parents. It’s about research on how childhood trauma affects life-long health (the full article is available only to subscribers, but this synopsis is fairly good). The article focuses on the work of Dr. Nadine Burke, a pediatrician at the Bayview Child Health Center in San Francisco, California. Dr. Burke noticed that many of her patients, most of whom come from low-income, inner-city families, displayed the same laundry list of ailments. Most also had suffered abuse, neglect, trauma, and loss throughout their childhoods, many while in the foster-care system. Dr. Burke began to be convinced that there was a connection between childhood trauma and long-term health problems.

Dr. Burke found support for her theory in a study by Vincent J. Felitti and Robert F. Anda In this study, members of the Kaiser Permanente HMO in the San Diego area were sent a questionnaire that evaluated their “adverse childhood experiences” or “ACE” (negative childhood events like abuse, neglect, parental drug use, etc.). They then compared the survey responses to the patients’ medical records. Felitti and Anda found that patients with higher ACE scores (indicating more childhood trauma) had higher incidences of chronic disease, such as heart disease and cancer. Even when they screened the results to eliminate behavioral factors like drug and alcohol use and smoking, the patients with higher ACE scores still had more health problems.

Several other studies have supported the one by Felitti and Anda, including one from Dunedin, New Zealand that found that adults in their thirties who had been abused as children were twice as likely to have high levels of an inflammatory protein in their blood, which is a predictor of cardiovascular disease. It is also supported by research on rats, showing that traumatic experiences cause changes in the rats’ brains that leave them unable to regulate their stress responses. This effect is reduced by parental nurturing. Burke also did research using the ACE questionnaire on her own patients, and found that learning and behavioral problems were much higher for kids with high levels of trauma (3% for children with ACE scores of zero to 51% for children with ACE scores of 4 or higher out of 10). Wow! In case you didn’t feel important as a parent, this research suggests that how you nurture and care for your child can actually change his or her brain chemistry and life-long health. As Dr. Burke says in the article, “you can trace the pathology as it moves from the molecular level to the social level.”

The good news for foster and adoptive parents is that there is strong evidence that these health effects can be lessened or reversed, even among older children and adults, although scientists are still studying which interventions are best. Cognitive-behavioral therapy, stress reduction, and medication are all methods that are being tried, and a study in Oregon also suggests that secure emotional attachment with the child’s current caregivers makes a big difference. While therapy is unquestionably important for kids who have experienced trauma, your instinct to nurture, love, and reduce stress in your adopted or foster child could be, quite literally, just what the doctor ordered.

Do you have more questions about adoption? Contact The Vaughan Firm to speak with an adoption attorney.

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