Why You Should Care about the Hidden Threats of Toxic Stress – Q&A with Nadine Burke Harris

In her TEDMED 2014 talk, Nadine Burke Harris revealed a little-understood, yet universal factor in childhood that can profoundly impact adult-onset disease. Eager to learn more, TEDMED reached out to gain further insight into her talk topic.

Photo by Kevork Djansezian, TEDMED 2014.
Photo by Kevork Djansezian, TEDMED 2014.

What motivated you to speak at TEDMED?

I was seeing the health impacts of Adverse Childhood Experiences and toxic stress in my clinic every day, and yet it felt like so few people knew about them. As a doctor, I wanted to sound the alarm about this health crisis. This is something every parent, grandparent, teacher and caregiver should know about.

Why does this talk matter now? What impact do you hope the talk will have?

We are spending more and more money on healthcare without getting to the root of some of our biggest health problems. I believe that routine screening and treatment for Adverse Childhood Experiences and toxic stress will lead to better health and quality of life for millions of Americans, not to mention reducing our healthcare costs. I hope to wake people up to this public health crisis and motivate everyone to become part of the solution.

Is there anything you wish you could have included in your talk?

We just analyzed the data on Adverse Childhood Experiences for the state of California. Over 60% of California’s population has had at least one experience, and 16.7% have had four or more. Individuals with four or more experiences are at double the lifetime risk of asthma, and over four times the risk of Alzheimer’s disease.

When we think about early adversity, we tend to think of low income communities of color. Our data in California shows that this is a big issue for every neighborhood and every income level. Every doctor should be screening for this.

What is the legacy you want to leave?

Currently, my team and I are working to develop a clinical protocol to effectively treat toxic stress. If we are successful, and I believe that we will be, that will be my legacy.

What’s next for you?

The Center for Youth Wellness is a young organization with a really ambitious agenda. Our goal is to transform the standard of pediatric practice to recognize and treat toxic stress. We have a lot of work to do before the effects of Adverse Childhood Experiences and toxic stress are common knowledge, like lead poisoning or second-hand smoke. Right now, our focus is on developing an effective clinical treatment protocol.