April 21, 2009 / 8:52 PM / 10 years ago

Witnessing violence can harm children's health: study

NEW YORK, April 21 (Reuters Life) - Witnessing violence in high-crime urban areas could increase levels a hormone in young children that could cause long-term health problems such as diabetes and heart disease, researchers said.

They found that children who experienced shootings, knife attacks or fights showed symptoms of post-traumatic stress, such as worries, flashbacks and difficulty paying attention.

The youngsters also had higher levels of the stress-related hormone cortisol, which can lead to a weaker immune system and other illnesses.

“Our study indicates that important biological effects occur in children living in high-crime neighborhoods,” said Dr Shakira Franco Suglia, of the Harvard School of Public Health.

She added that 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.

Suglia and her colleague, Dr. Rosalind Wright, of Brigham and Women Hospital in Boston, collected saliva samples from 28 girls and 15 boys, aged seven to 13, four times each day for three days to measure cortisol production.

They also questioned the children about violence they had witnessed. If they scored higher on stress symptoms, there were higher levels of the hormone, particularly in the afternoon and evening.

Suglia and Wright, who reported the findings in the International Journal of Behavioral Medicine, said the children’s symptoms were less severe that those in youngsters with post traumatic stress disorder.

“As a result, they may not come to the attention of healthcare providers and a large number of children may be impacted with broad adverse effects,” Suglia added.

The study’s initial goal was to test the effect of tobacco exposure in children, but was expanded to add the research on the impact of witnessing violence.

Mothers of the children participated in the research from 1986 to 1992 to provide information so their children could be studied from birth.

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