Child abuse prevention experts in South Dakota and elsewhere say a new study underscores the need to protect children from traumatic situations to avoid long-term physical health problems. International researchers have found a 14% increase in heart failure in adults who have experienced some form of childhood abuse.
Those with three to five types of maltreatment had a 43% increased risk.
Brooke Jones, a child abuse pediatrician based in Sioux Falls, said these events place stressors on the body.
“If you’ve heard of the term ‘fight or flight’ – if you faced constant adversity as a child, you might be in a constant flight phase, which means you have no downregulation or lack of control. you’re not getting out of this environment of constant stress,” Jones said.
And this constant stress can leave its mark in multiple ways, including cardiovascular disease, as these children transition into adulthood. Jones said parents or caregivers can lessen the impact by providing a nurturing environment as the child grows.
She said that can involve simple things like reading to them or finding ways to let them know they’re in a safe space.
Shakira Suglia, director of epidemiology at Emory University, chaired a 2017 report by the American Heart Association that linked negative childhood experiences to adult health risks, including heart disease. She said the new study adds to the evidence that the effect on mental and physical health go hand in hand when the layers of trauma are peeled away.
“There could be a development of depression or anxiety disorders that could make a person more prone to coping with substances,” she said. “For example, smoking is also another thing that people tend to use to deal with stress.”
Suglia echoed calls for policymakers and community organizations to do everything that fosters stronger family relationships, especially in situations where trauma has surfaced in a household. She said outside the home, schools and care centers can be on high alert for children who have experienced trauma and should try to emphasize a welcoming environment in these settings.
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