Childhood trauma’s devastating impact on health

Exposure to trauma during childhood can dramatically increase people’s risk for 7 out of 10 of the leading causes of death in the U.S.—including high blood pressure, heart disease, and cancer—and it’s crucial to address this public health crisis, according to Harvard Chan alumna Nadine Burke Harris, MPH ’02.

In an impassioned TED talk, Burke Harris, a California pediatrician, cites research that links early adversity—such as physical or emotional abuse or neglect, parental mental illness or substance abuse, or domestic violence—to a host of serious health problems. She noted that such “toxic stress” can cause changes in the brain and the hormonal system. In particular, the repeated activation of the “fight-or-flight” response in children can lead to serious health problems over time.

Burke Harris saw firsthand the impact of trauma on her young patients in Bayview-Hunters Point, one of the poorest, most underserved neighborhoods in San Francisco. But she said the problem occurs among children across the economic and social spectrum. She called for an increased focus on preventing childhood exposure to trauma and on developing effective treatments when it does occur.

“This is treatable. This is beatable. The single most important thing that we need today is the courage to look this problem in the face and say, ‘this is real, and this is all of us,’ ” she said.

Watch Nadine Burke Harris’ TED talk: How childhood trauma affects health across a lifetime

Learn more

Chronic stress takes a toll on the young (Harvard Chan School news)

The Toxic Stress of Early Childhood Adversity (Forum webcast)