The scientific evidence is crystal clear: Early experiences literally shape the architecture of the developing brain. This widespread understanding is driving increased public support for universal pre-K to enhance school readiness for all children and level the playing field for kids who face adversity. But here’s something that’s less well-known by the public: Since the brain is connected to the rest of the body, early experiences affect all of our biological systems, for better or worse, beginning in utero and all the crucial years that follow.
This broader message is sending an important wake-up call: We all need to start paying closer attention to the science that explains how excessive adversity can undermine lifelong health as well as early learning. This knowledge can help us better understand why people of color in the United States are at greater risk of developing chronic medical conditions and aging prematurely than white people.
Given growing evidence of the early origins of disparities in both physical and mental health, focusing on brain development and learning alone confronts only one dimension of the pervasive inequalities linked to racism that loom over American society. Case in point: Although gaps in academic achievement between Black and white children have decreased by 30 percent to 40 percent since the 1970s, reducing racial disparities in health has been more challenging. For example, preterm birth and low birth weight, which are associated with greater risk for later cardiovascular disease and diabetes, occur at a rate that is approximately 1.5 to 1.6 times higher for non-Hispanic Blacks compared with non-Hispanic whites — and those gaps have persisted for decades.
Mounting scientific evidence is telling us that the foundations of lifelong health are built during the prenatal period and early infancy. Factors that promote positive outcomes include supportive relationships, safe physical environments and sufficient resources to meet basic needs such as food and shelter. Take away any of these protective factors or add the weight of excessive hardship or threat outside the family, and you tip the scale toward a greater risk of later problems.
Source: Knowable Magazine