April 21, 2009

Witnessing violence hurts kids’ health

School-age children who witness violence in urban communities show symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, U.S. researcher say.

Dr. Shakira Franco Suglia of the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston and her team lead by Dr. Rosalind J. Wright from Brigham and Women's Hospital said that because these children are not diagnosed with PTSD, these abnormal physiological symptoms are unlikely to be picked up by their doctors.

Suglia and colleagues examined the impact of exposure to community violence on physiological markers of stress response in children. More specifically, they looked at PTSD symptoms -- difficulty with attention or sleep, intrusive thoughts, flashbacks, worries -- on the daily cortisol -- stress hormone -- response among 28 girls and 15 boys ages 7-13.

Mothers rated their child's exposure to community violence and PTSD symptoms. The researchers also collected saliva samples from the children four times a day over three days to measure cortisol production.

The study, published in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine, found the higher children scored on the stress symptoms, the greater the disruption to their cortisol production pattern and the higher their cortisol levels over the course of the day.

Stress-induced changes to how cortisol is produced and regulated can lead to a weaker immune system and increased fat storage in the abdominal region linked to cardiovascular disease and diabetes.