Berkeley Talks: Nadine Burke Harris on the health impacts of childhood stress

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Nadine Burke Harris giving a talk

Nadine Burke Harris is the first surgeon general of California. (Photo by Hewitt Visuals)

Nadine Burke Harris, named the first surgeon general of California in January, has seen how childhood stress and trauma leads to declining health in adulthood. She began studying the correlation as a pediatrician years ago, and continued her research as medical director of the Bayview Child Health Center in San Francisco and founder of the Center for Youth Wellness.

“I believe, fundamentally, that social determinants of health are to the 21st century what infectious disease was to the 20th century,” Harris told Berkeley Public Health Dean Michael Lu during the school’s Dean’s Speaker Series event on Sept. 26.

As surgeon general, Harris is leading the state’s efforts to implement routine screening for Adverse Childhood Experiences, known as ACEs, among California’s Medicaid population.

ACEs, explained Harris, are experiences — abuse, homelessness, losing a caregiver — that lead to health issues later in life, including heart disease, cancer and diabetes. The more ACEs a person has, she said, the more at risk they are.

“When we recognize that childhood adversity is a common root cause,” she said, “it gives us really powerful insight into some of the most urgent issues of our day, specifically when we understand that cumulative adversity has an impact on our stress response system. And that impacts our later risk of heart disease. It helps us understand that when a black boy is walking down the street and gets stopped, the more times it is activated, the greater the risk to the youth.”

Harris ended her talk with her goal and a call to action: “In my role as state surgeon general, it’s my intention to lay the infrastructure to ensure that, in the state of California, we will cut ACEs in half in one generation. And y’all are going to help me with that.”

Watch a video of the conversation, see photos and read more on Berkeley Public Health’s website.