The Brain-Body Connection: How Early Childhood Development and Long-term Health are Inextricably Connected
People are often surprised to learn how profoundly our early childhood experiences affect our health into adulthood. Researchers have realized that the experiences children live through affect not only their brain development but other systems within the body including heart and lung function, infection resistance, and physical growth.
Scientists and educators alike are realising now more than ever before that the conditions and environment a child is reared in directly affect both short-term educational achievement and lifelong health. Understanding the correlation between the two is critical for educators and parents.
Harvard University recently released their extensive findings on the subject and came away with 3 key findings:
1. The Brain and the Body Systems Work Together in Response to Environmental Stimuli
The conditions in which young children are raised and the experiences they endure affect both brain development and the development of other body systems including the nervous, cardiovascular, metabolic, immune, and neuroendocrine systems.
This interconnectedness emphasizes the importance of offering support to families with young children—doing so builds a strong foundation for healthy emotional development, future educational success, and increases the likelihood of physical and mental health in adulthood.
2. There’s No Such Thing as “Too Young”
Research indicates that a child’s future health can be affected while still in utero. Experiences a mother endures during pregnancy and into the first few years of child’s life can directly affect biological development.
For example, mothers who live in unstable environments or endure negative experiences and poor nutrition while pregnant can give birth to infants with an increased risk of developing heart disease, obesity, diabetes, and mental health conditions.
Creating programs that reduce stress and support families with pregnant mothers and young children can reduce the risk of long-term health concerns as the children reach adulthood, thereby reducing healthcare costs.
Early intervention is key to creating a healthy future adult population.
3. Persistent Inflammation Leads to Poor Physical and Mental Health
Inflammation is a natural part of the body’s response to stress and is designed as part of our natural fight-or-flight response, defending us against injury, infection, and sudden stress.
The inflammatory response is designed to switch on during times of stress, then switch back off once danger has passed. But for those living in an unstable or unhealthy environment, what should be a temporary inflammatory response can become long term and chronic which, in turn, negatively affects physical and mental wellbeing.
Living in a prolonged state of inflammation makes children and their parents more susceptible to infection and inflammatory conditions such as heart disease, depression, autoimmune diseases, cancer, and dementia.
Creating policies and offering services that reduce the level of stress for a family—for example, poverty, racism, violence, and food insecurity—can reduce the need for costly medical treatments in the future.
How Can We Use This Information to Help?
The value of this information cannot be understated. Such information can be used by community educators and medical and governmental officials to redesign systems serving children and their parents.
Thanks to this information, we now know we can increase the effectiveness of current policies and programs by ensuring they:
Support responsive relationships—those relationships that help children and adults deal with stress, regulate emotions, and build hope for the future. Supporting such relationships lays the groundwork for brain health, protects children from stress, and strengthens resilience.
Reduce stress sources – doing so will reduce the toll chronic inflammation takes on the body and make it easier for parents to protect and care for young children.
Build core life skills – such skills are critical for adults to be able to set and accomplish goals, manage behavior and emotions, create healthy routines, and support healthy child development.
Improving community-based services for families, access to healthcare for children, and access to daycare/early childhood education are critical to long-term success. Creating such integrated systems requires the combined efforts of local education experts and community leaders to ensure the systems reflect and cater to the cultural diversity of the community.
Finally, exposure to poverty, racism, violence, housing instability and food insecurity places a tremendous burden on families. Careful intervention focused on building resilience in parents and children can lead to improved health and wellness for individuals, but efforts of a larger scale that tackle unequal access to education, healthcare, and employment opportunities are needed to affect change of a broader scope.
This study makes clear that more vigorous early childhood policies and programs are integral to affecting real and lasting change for the families of young children. Providing a positive, healthy, and stress-free early childhood is key to raising children who become well-adjusted, healthy adults fully capable of reaching their full potential.
Thanks for reading,
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