Home News Natural disasters can affect children’s mental health: study

Natural disasters can affect children’s mental health: study

by Archives February 3, 2009

Pregnant women who experience stress from natural disasters are more likely to give birth to babies with lower IQs and higher incidences of mental disorders, according to a new study.
Children whose mothers experienced climate-related stress during pregnancy have a higher risk of developing low self-esteem, obesity, anxiety, depression, and high blood pressure. The research also suggests an impact on physical development such as shorter finger lengths. The study, led by Suzanne King, director of the Psychosocial Research Division at McGill’s Douglas Mental Health University Institute, looked at the effects of stress on 150 pregnant women during the 1998 Quebec ice storm and followed the development of their children for the past 11 years. The findings were announced at a conference on climate change and mental health at the Douglas Institute this week.
The women were without power for on average 15 days during the storm and often experienced other related stress, such as financial loss. The children of women who experienced greater stress, such as going without power for a longer period of time, also showed poorer language skills.
“Even a very small, mild stress is enough for permanent damage,” said King, noting that this had “a major effect on cognitive development.” She said the children of teen mothers were particularly at risk, as their mothers’ bodies competed with their unborn children for iron.
When a person is stressed, the hippocampus, a part of the brain which affects memory, navigation, spatial orientation and emotions, shrinks and releases the hormone cortisol into the blood stream, increasing blood pressure.
A pregnant mother under stress transfers more cortisol into the fetus’ blood. This could have a negative impact on the child’s later development.
“Even a very small, mild stress is enough for permanent damage,” said King, noting that this had “a major effect on cognitive development.” She said the children of teen mothers were particularly at risk, as their mothers’ bodies competed with their unborn children for iron.
When a person is stressed, the hippocampus, a part of the brain which affects memory, navigation, spatial orientation and emotions, shrinks and releases the hormone cortisol into the blood stream, increasing blood pressure.
A pregnant mother under stress transfers more cortisol into the fetus’ blood. This could have a negative impact on the child’s later development.
Gordon McBean, director of policy studies for the Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction at the University of Western Ontario and co-winner of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize, said that as climate change causes more events such as tornadoes and hurricanes to occur, the danger will increase in coming years. “As a parent and a grandfather, I am very concerned about this,” he said. McBean, called for new warning systems to inform expecting mothers of the danger their child faces, as well a way to inform doctors of climate related stress their patients might have experienced in the past.
The conference discussed potential prevention and treatments. Research with animals such as guinea pigs and monkeys showed that hormonal therapy could be effective. “Animal research is painting the way to potential interventions,” said King. Experiments with rats suggested the effect of stress on the unborn could be partly reversed by providing more parental care and a more intellectually stimulating environment. Dr. Tomas Paus, the adjunct professor of neurology and neurosurgery at McGill University, struck a hopeful note, saying he was “very optimistic about being able to change the brain, if you will, later in life.”

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