Want to predict a child's future health? First measure their stress, says researcher

New evidence suggests that children who suffer stressful or traumatic events could suffer life-long consequences. The culprit? Cortisol, a stress hormone.

Male children who have suffered greater trauma are likelier to become injection drug users, study finds

Adverse childhood experiences can range from physical abuse to parental separation. (Brian A. Jackson/Shutterstock)

We've all been told that stress is harmful to our health. But new evidence suggests that children who suffer stressful or traumatic events could suffer life-long consequences. 

The events are known as adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), which range from parental separation to sexual abuse. Researchers have discovered that they're clear indictors of a child's future health outcomes. 

The culprit is the stress hormone cortisol, which is toxic to a child, said Jennifer Mervyn, a psychologist and ACE consultant.

"The impact on the brain is significant," Mervyn said during an interview on CBC's The Early Edition

The study could have broader implications in B.C., which is grappling with an opioid overdose crisis. 

One study found that a male child with an ACE score of six is 46 times more likely to become an injection drug user versus a male child who has an ACE score of zero. 

The findings were presented this week in Surrey's health and technology district, which hosted a week-long event on advancements in brain research. 

Listen to the full interview below. 

New evidence suggests that children who suffer stressful or traumatic events could suffer life-long ramifications? The culprit? Cortisol, a stress hormone. 6:21

Brains 'want to change'

Researchers have discovered that cortisol can have a structural impact on a child's brain, Mervyn said. 

Children who accumulate trauma tend to develop a larger amygdala, which is the brain's emotional response centre. 

The good news, Mervyn said, is that children's brains are malleable, meaning that damage inflicted by stress and trauma can be offset as a child matures into puberty. 

"[Brains] want to change, they want to heal," she said. "The capacity to do so when you're young is incredible." 

Treatments for kids can be found through various therapies and caring relationships with adults, Mervyn said. 

Parents, too, can learn techniques that help them cope with their own stress and support and nurture their child. 

"It really comes down to creating an environment where that child has been removed from that toxic stress," Mervyn said. 

Mervyn said the findings also point to the need for greater investment in youth mental health and substance abuse programs. 


With files from CBC's The Early Edition