New strategies needed to help vulnerable children grow into healthy adults

Parents and adults working with vulnerable young children and babies must be better equipped to shield the youngsters from “toxic stress” and other adversities that can contribute to the development of heart disease, obesity, diabetes, and other diseases later in life, Jack P. Shonkoff, Julius B. Richmond FAMRI professor of child health and development and director, Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, told a national gathering convened by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) Commission to Build a Healthier America in Washington, D.C., on June 19, 2013.

“Science suggests if we want to have a breakthrough impact on children, we have to transform the lives of adults who take care of them,” Shonkoff said. “Children and their health are shaped by the people around them. Adults have to be prepared to buffer children from stress in their lives – to help children learn to be resilient and overcome adversity.” Many adults may need help developing their skills so they can hold jobs, and have less stressful homes for their children, he said.

The Commission called the public meeting to hear testimony from leading experts on how best to support health in communities and during early childhood as a follow-up to its 2009 recommendations. Commissioners include Katherine Baicker, professor of health economics at HSPH, and Sheila Burke of Harvard Kennedy School.

David R. Williams, staff director of the Commission, Florence Sprague Norman and Laura Smart Norman Professor of Public Health at HSPH, and professor of African and African American Studies and of Sociology at Harvard University, moderated the program. Since the Commission met in 2009, he noted more children have access to fresh produce, healthier foods, and physical activity; the SNAP and WIC programs have been improved, and the U.S. child obesity rate has declined slightly. However, he said, much remains to be done to bring the overall health of children in poor communities up to that of youngsters in wealthier areas.

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Read about the RWJF Commission and the meeting

Overcoming Obstacles to Health in 2013 and Beyond (RWJF Commission to Build a Healthier America report by the National Research Council and Institute of Medicine)

HSPH Forum: The Toxic Stress of Early Childhood Adversity (February 7, 2012)

Stress plays key role in racial disparities in health (HSPH press release)

Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University