Childhood Stress May Cause Illness in Adults

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A new Harvard study shows that intense physical and mental stress in childhood can lead to health problems later in life.

A certain amount of stress in early childhood is a normal and even important part of healthy development. But the researchers found that toxic stress, such as physical abuse, extreme poverty and chronic neglect, can increase a person's risk of heart disease, cancer, diabetes and other illnesses during adulthood. Harvard's Jack Shonkoff is the study's lead author.

"Excessive, continuous, unremitting stress at high levels — without the buffering protection of adult support — is what leaves high-risk groups vulnerable to problems with learning, problems with behavior, and problems with physical and mental health," says Shonkoff, director of Harvard's Center on the Developing Child.

Shonkoff says the study shows the importance of early childhood services not only for school readiness, but also for children's health. The study appears in the June 3 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

This program aired on June 3, 2009.

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Sacha Pfeiffer Host, All Things Considered
Sacha Pfeiffer was formerly the host of WBUR's All Things Considered.



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