How Childhood Experiences Shape Our Nation's Health

Mar 12, 2015, 3:36 PM, Posted by Kristin Schubert

New findings strongly suggest that Americans are ready for new approaches to address early childhood trauma and stress. To do that in a big way, we need more than science—we need a movement.

I remember when I first learned about research showing that what happens to a person as a child impacts their health later in life. It was 2007, and I was pregnant with my first child. My boss and mentor, Jim Marks, brought the Adverse Childhood Experience’s (ACE) study to my attention. The Centers for Disease Control and Kaiser Permanente had surveyed 17,000 Kaiser members about their childhood experiences and compared the answers to those members’ medical records.

The ACE researchers found that the more trauma and stress you experienced as a child, the more likely you were to have cancer, heart disease, and diabetes as an adult. The more likely you were to suffer from chronic depression, be addicted to drugs and alcohol, or attempt suicide. And the more likely you were to drop out of school, be incarcerated, or chronically unemployed.

As a new mom, this research completely changed the way I thought about my role as a parent and what I wanted for my kids. As a health professional, it also changed my focus at work. It prompted me to focus more on violence and trauma—which is especially toxic to children—and to help RWJF launch Start Strong, a groundbreaking initiative to prevent dating violence and teach teenagers healthy relationship skills. I also worked with my colleagues to learn everything we could from experts on childhood trauma and adversity. Those lessons led to a new portfolio of RWJF investments focused on promoting the social and emotional wellbeing of families and children and preventing childhood trauma in homes and communities.

It turns out that what took scientists a long time to understand is relatively intuitive to most Americans. Last week, RWJF, NPR and Harvard University’s School of Public Health released a new survey, which found that Americans overwhelmingly believe that our health as adults is shaped by what we experience as children. The following are just some of the highlights of that study:

  • 9 out of 10 Americans (89%) believe that being abused or neglected as a child has an extremely or very important impact on health as an adult. 
  • 2 out of 3 Americans (66%) believe that living in poverty as a child has an extremely or very important impact on health as an adult.
  • 4 out of 10 Americans (39%) report that they have had one or more childhood experiences they believe had a harmful effect on their health as an adult.

These findings strongly suggest that Americans are ready for new approaches that strengthen families with young children from the start and provide protection and healing to those who are most likely to experience childhood trauma. To do that in a big way, we need more than science. We need a movement.

One of the movement’s most promising leaders is a San Francisco pediatrician named Dr. Nadine Burke Harris. Around the same time that I first learned about the ACE study, Dr. Burke Harris experienced the same revelation. At the time, she was primarily seeing kids who grew up in homes and neighborhoods where violence and poverty were common. She started administering the ACE survey to her patients, saw the same pattern emerge, and reinvented her practice to treat root causes rather than symptoms of illness. Today, Dr. Burke Harris is bringing the science of early childhood to a national audience.

Those of us in the health sector have a hugely important role to play in this movement, but we cannot do it alone. We need additional partners who can accelerate progress for children and families.

Recently, RWJF began partnering with the National Governors Association’s Center for Best Practices to help states promote child development, social and emotional skill building, and health within early care and school settings. They will work directly with governors and their staff to share research and innovation, develop model policies, promote interagency collaboration, and provide technical assistance.

We are also now working with the Council for a Strong America to enlist and elevate unexpected messengers who can make the case for investments in early childhood. With their leadership, we will expand the movement to include unlikely allies from business, law enforcement, the military, the faith community and professional sports. Scientists and doctors are now telling us that early experiences are tied to a person’s health. But we also need these other voices to make the broader case that the experiences of the next generation of children will determine our nation’s health and prosperity.

In the coming months, we will continue to share news of even more opportunities to broaden and deepen this movement to strengthen children and families. In the meantime, we encourage you to help us spread the knowledge that childhood experiences matter. Because anyone with that knowledge can be a spark for change.