Previous research has shown that stressful events in childhood increase an adult's risk of health problems, but this study shows that these consequences may occur much sooner.
University of Florida researchers analyzed data from nearly 96,000 children across the United States who took part in the National Survey for Child Health. The survey collected information about the children's health and stressful situations they faced, such as their parents divorcing, domestic and neighborhood violence, being poor, a parent with mental health problems, exposure to drug abuse, and a parent in jail.
Children who experienced three or more stressful events were six times more likely to have physical or mental health problems or a learning disorder than those who had no stressful experiences, the investigators found.
"The kids who have the highest number of adverse experiences have the highest likelihood of having multiple conditions. It is not one poor health outcome; it is a whole slew of poor outcomes across the board," study author Melissa Bright, a research coordinator at the University of Florida's Institute of Child Health Policy, said in a university news release.
She presented her findings this week at the annual meeting of the American Psychosomatic Society, in San Francisco.
Chronic stress can trigger changes in a child's developing neuroendocrine and immune systems that lead to poor control of the stress response and a reduced ability to resist disease, the researchers said.
If this is the case, it may be possible to identify these changes early on and treat them, in order to reduce the risk of health problems, Bright suggested.
"It is also possible that having a child with multiple health conditions puts serious financial and emotional strains on families, making them more susceptible to adverse experiences such as caregiver mental illness and divorce," Bright said. "We are currently collecting data for a new study in which we plan to examine this possibility."
Research presented at medical meetings should be considered preliminary until it has been published in a peer-reviewed journal.