Childhood Health Impacts Adult Healthcare - Mayo Center for Innovation

Healthier Kids, Healthier Communities

Post Written By Megan Zimmerman

All children need an environment that supports their health and wellbeing. Kids need loving families who nurture their daily needs, schools that engage their minds, and safe homes and communities to live in and grow. When Dr. Nadine Burke Harris started the Center for Youth Wellness in Bayview, California, she knew she wanted serve communities and children to build a healthier environment. Dr. Harris implored schools, churches, and community to come to bring patients to her clinic. She soon realized that her expectations were far different from the realities she faced with her patients. Dr. Harris found that the children in her community suffered from adverse childhood experiences that negatively impacted their health outcomes. Adverse childhood experiences include domestic violence, parents with substance dependence, parents who are incarcerated, witnessing community violence, physical, sexual, or emotional abuse, or parental separation or divorce. Being exposed to these adverse childhood experiences dramatically impacts a child’s long term health.

Having one single adverse childhood experience greatly impacts a child’s long term health; having more than one is overwhelmingly significant. Children who deal with adverse childhood experiences are more likely to experience medical conditions including diabetes, heart disease, asthma. They are more likely to suffer from depression and commit suicide or have suicidal thoughts. Dr. Harris described how adversity actually changes the development of a child’s brain. It makes a child more likely to engage in risky behavior and the fear associated with adversity imprisions these children in a constant state of fear. This fear can become maladaptive and incredibly damaging. Although this is a grim story to tell, Dr. Harris’ work shows us that there are some things we can do to address adverse childhood experiences.

Dr. Harris and the care team at the Bayfield health clinic use well child checks and a multidisciplinary treatment team to improve the health of their patients. Every family that walks into the clinic completes a short survey to indicate the number of adverse childhood experiences their children have faced. They use use this information to address their health by offering home visits, wellness nursing, mental health treatments, and sometimes medication. The staff at the clinic are always willing to try emerging practices that have been shown to impact health and wellness, including biofeedback, and mindfulness; they quickly adapt and only use what works for patients.

Dr. Harris argued that adverse childhood experiences are a public health crisis. If we make a routine screening for adverse childhood experiences part of every well-child check, we would have the ability to make an early intervention. With this early intervention, neuroplasticity would help facilitate more change in the child’s developing brain, which would improve the health outcomes for these children before the issue even surfaces. Dr. Harris’ work showed me that we are not doing enough to improve and maintain a high quality of life for children today. Simply meeting their daily needs, proving a school to attend, and building a safe physical environment is not enough to keep a child healthy. After listening to Dr. Harris’ speech, I am motivated to reduce the number of adverse childhood experiences each child faces. I’m not saying that all of the adverse childhood experiences can be avoided, because parents separate for good reasons and bad things happen in communities that we cannot control. However, I do believe we can address and eliminate many of these experiences and improve the quality of life for millions of children. When we do, I can’t help but imagine a world full of happier and healthier children ready to improve the world for the next generation.