Stress in Childhood Tied to Early Chronic Disease

I’ve always believed that each of us has a moral duty to share our knowledge and to promote a healthy lifestyle for children and youth in North America and worldwide. It’s what attracted me to organizations like WE Charity where like-minded individuals come together to help make doing good, doable. It’s also why I think it’s important to speak out about childhood stressors. Whether it’s accidental, such as boys trapped in a cave or against the longer-term atrocities that are happening to migrant children. Let me shed some light on the impact these stressful events can have on their future health.

As a medical doctor, I’ve spent years studying the biological impact our mental health can have on our bodies. I’ve written about how Telomere science proves that poor mental health can fuel physical disease – even starting as early as in utero.

Telomeres are like the plastic tips of your shoelaces that keep them from fraying. But they’re at the end tips of chromosomes. Depending on your lifestyle and your stress load, you can prematurely burn them out. When telomeres get to a critically short length, there’s a heightened risk of developing conditions such as heart disease, cancer, arthritis and dementia.

Medical Proof

In a 2011 study by renowned telomere researchers Elissa Epel and Nobel Prize winner Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn, a causal effect between stress and physical disease appears to start at a very early age, even before a child is born. It found that young healthy adults of mothers who experienced relatively stress-free pregnancies display longer telomeres than their peers whose mothers experienced severe stress while pregnant – such as the stress that happens after the death of a close family member.

Other studies have found that people who have suffered from depression for long periods of time have shorter telomeres. In fact, the rate appears to be in line with the total number of days a person is depressed over their lifetime. Oxidative stress and inflammation seem to be related to this process. In other words, our physical maladies are related in some way to our mental ones.

Telomere shortening and mood disorders: preliminary support for a chronic stress model of accelerated aging

Stress Can Shorten Our Lives

Another ground-breaking study in 2004, Accelerated Telomere Shortening in Response to Life Stress, highlights the link between stress and the rate of telomere shortening. The researchers looked at the telomere lengths of mothers who were responsible for the care of their chronically ill children.

The longer a mother spent time as the main caregiver of a child affected by a serious disorder, the shorter her telomeres were compared to mothers caring for children who were generally healthy. They also found that mothers who felt a sense of control over their lives had longer telomeres than mothers who felt their lives were more stressed. Quantified, the “most stressed” mothers exhibited telomere shortening equal to at least ten years of aging. This means that this stress could shorten their lives by ten years.

Studies suggest that children who have some form of maltreatment generally have shorter telomeres compared to more fortunate children. They may be able to endure one incident but not much more. Certainly the severity and chronicity of even one incident will impact telomere health.

Kananen L, Surakka I, Pirkola S, Suvisaari J, et al. (2010) PLoS ONE 5(5): e10826.

Time to Act

Given the recent crises around the world with migrant and refugee families being displaced and separated, telomere biology provides further insight into the tragic trajectory of these lives. Their future health is at risk beyond the immediate reality of day to day survival. This is especially true for children. We often say that children are resilient, but only for so far.

As a physician, I cannot solve political problems, but hope that leaders around the world can improve the situation of so many displaced people. Even beyond whatever dangers they may be fleeing, their health and longevity truly depend on it.

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