We’ve known since the late 90s the impact of adverse childhood experiences (ACE) on the growth and development of children. The ACE study discovered an exposure that dramatically increased the risk for seven out of 10 of the leading causes of death in the United States. In high doses, it affects brain development, the immune system, hormonal systems and even the way our DNA is read and transcribed. Children who are exposed in very high doses have triple the lifetime risk of heart disease and lung cancer and a 20-year difference in life expectancy.
And what were these childhood exposures? Physical, emotional or sexual abuse. Physical or emotional neglect. Household challenges, including mental illness, substance abuse, witnessing violence towards an adult parent or caregiver, an absent parent because of divorce, separation or incarceration.
And someone might say, “You had a rough childhood, so you drink more and smoke. That’s just bad behavior. We all have tough times…”
But today we know from scientific studies and our ability to image the brain how exposure to early adversity affects the developing brains and bodies of children.
It affects areas like the nucleus accumbens, the pleasure and reward center of the brain that is implicated in substance dependence. It inhibits the prefrontal cortex, which is necessary for impulse control and executive function, a critical area for learning. And on MRI scans, we see measurable differences in the amygdala, the brain’s fear response center.
So there are real neurologic reasons why children exposed to high doses of adversity are more likely to engage in high-risk behavior, including suicide and buying guns to shoot up innocent children and their teachers.
Our small vibrant community in partnering with 100% New Mexico has recognized that food security, housing, medical, dental, behavioral health and transportation are essential core services in any community for children to just survive. Providing support through mentoring, job training, community schools, early childhood development and parental support can create a thriving community. The tragedy at Uvalde is not going to be solved by stricter gun controls, although it is clearly part of the solution. But we also need to address why so many families struggle to feed, clothe and be housed in supposedly the richest country on earth, leading to stress and often toxic living conditions.
And we continue to struggle as a nation with providing the same level of mental health support that we routinely give to our physical health. Our minds and bodies are intricately connected. Leading heart specialist Sandeep Juahar said in his 2019 TED talk: “We are approaching the limits of what scientific medicine can do to combat heart disease…We must pay more attention to the power and importance of the emotions in taking care of our hearts. Emotional stress, I have learned, is often a matter of life and death.” In other words leaning in to take care of the mental and emotional health and wellbeing of everyone in our community could be the difference between life or death and preventing another brutal tragedy like in Uvalde, Texas or Buffalo, N.Y.