Children exposed to toxic stress in their formative years can see a lifelong impact to their overall health and well-being, according to child-development professionals Tuesday at the Toxic Stress Summit at the Island Grove Regional Park Events Center in Greeley.
About 140 early childhood health professionals heard from Sarah Watamura, director of the Child Health & Development Laboratory and the Stress, Early Experience and Development Research Center at the University of Denver, who discussed how kids are impacted by chronic stress and how those impacted can be mitigated.
Watamura said certain types of stress can be beneficial in some contexts. Toxic stress is different from positive stress in that it’s “strong, frequent and/or prolonged activation of the body’s stress-response systems in the absence of the buffering protection of adult support,” she said.
She said long-term effects of exposure to chronic stress are associated with increased susceptibility to cardiovascular disease, diabetes and infectious illnesses, and an increased risk of obesity, lower immune function and memory and attention problems.
Those who experience toxic stress from an early age can also age faster and the effects of that stress can be seen on a cellular level, Watamura said.
“At the end of every DNA strand in all the cells in your body, there are things called telomeres,” Watamura said. “When they are all gone, the cell can’t replicate any more. When that happens across your body, that’s the end of your life. So — literally — having early-life stress impacts the number of telomeres at the end of your cells. That can be detected by as early as nine years of age.”
She said by better understanding the risk factors and the eventual outcomes they are associated with, child-development professionals can have better targets for prevention and intervention work.
A panel of professionals from local health, law and childhood resource agencies also talked about toxic stress from their various perspectives and discussed ways to address the issue.
Panel moderator Robert Lowenbach, a senior judge for the state of Colorado, urged those in attendance to share their knowledge and expertise with policy makers.
“If we just talk about the problem, instead of really addressing the problem, and collaborating, as all these panelists talked about … then we’re going to be back here 10 years from now talking about the exact same problem,” Lowenbach said. “We need to spread the word to those that make policy decisions and align what we know — we know this stuff — with what we do, and we’re not doing that right now as a society.”