- Dr. Jack Shonkoff, director of Harvard's Center on the Developing Child and a Professor at Harvard School of Public Health, Harvard Graduate School of Education, Harvard Medical School, and Children's Hospital Boston.
Everyone knows how it feels to be stressed. Your heart is pounding, your blood pressure is up, and you feel a rush of adrenaline. Now, imagine feeling like that all the time.
For many children living in unstable home environments – where the next meal or rent check is a constant source of anxiety – that feeling is a reality. According to Dr. Jack Shonkoff, director of the Center on the Developing Child, the presence of that kind of constant stress has some serious health implications.
“That can have a real wear and tear effect on the body if that level of stress is present a lot of the time,” he says, “particularly for a young child whose brain is developing, whose other organ systems are maturing and developing.”
That maturing process, Shonkoff says, can be drastically interrupted by toxic stress, and the results are serious. Not only are these children more prone to conditions like hypertension or heart disease, but they’re also less likely to develop skills that are essential to succeeding in school, like paying attention and following directions. That means that when many children begin attending school for the first time, a gap has already opened up between students with unstable home environments and their more well-off peers.
Shonkoff says that it’s no startling revelation that people in adverse situations are more prone to sickness like heart disease and hypertension and have shorter life expectancies. What is new, he says, is discovering the source. “We’ve known that association for a long time,” he says. “Now we’re getting some insight on why that happens in the body.”
While the new research may sound overwhelming, Shonkoff emphasizes that it also provides a glimmer of hope: with the root cause of a problem known, it can be more effectively addressed with well-targeted policies.