The Science Behind Building Better Communities

All cities are working hard to answer challenges that face them, but the trick is to make sure the right questions are asked in the first place.

Last month, People First, the human capital development campaign of the Memphis Fast Forward initiative and the Early Success Coalition co-sponsored a symposium. The first featured speaker was Robin Karr-Morse, author of two seminal books about brain development and toxic stress, Ghosts from the Nursery and Scared Sick. Next came Dr. Vince Felitti, founder and chief of the Department of Preventive Medicine at Kaiser Permanente Medical Care Program in San Diego, who led an in-depth analysis that conclusively established the connection between childhood emotional experiences and adult physical and mental health.

Together, they offered our community an unparalleled opportunity to understand how early childhood not only shapes the lives of our children but the life of a community. Best of all, the large turnout included leaders from government, including Mayors Wharton and Luttrell, law enforcement, health care, social services, and childhood development. Mayor Luttrell said he attended because "the single issue in our society is guiding babies into adults who do good for Memphis and Shelby County."

Dr. Felitti began his presentation with a provocative question that riveted the audience: "How do you take an infant and turn it into a person sleeping on the street, forgotten by society, in 20 years?" Like no other researcher in the U.S., he has the answers to that question as a result of the revelations from his Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study of 17,000 adults.

The study establishes that stressful experiences create risk for adults' health and the study's data revealed staggering proof of the health, social, and economic risks that result from childhood trauma. "These are factors that are not often discussed," he said. "They are not touched on as part of the discussion about mental and physical health. We need to move in that direction. We're playing a difficult game with only half a deck."

To illustrate the point, Dr. Felitti said that addiction correlates more to childhood experiences than to the properties of any "addictive substance." "The underlying paradox is that what people often see as ‘the problem' is the patient's solution," he said, explaining that a patient uses the addiction as a shield against the fear and pain from adverse childhood conditions.

The more stress factors a person has, the higher the ACE score and the greater the negative impact later in life. "ACEs are the most basic and long-lasting cause of health risk behaviors, mental illness, social malfunction, disability, and biomedical disease," he said.

Ms. Karr-Morse underscored the negative implications of toxic stress and how it triggers health issues that have created a major public health crisis in Memphis and the U.S. "The first years of life are more important than we ever realized," she said as she summarized the conclusions in her latest book, Scared Sick: The Role of Childhood Trauma in Adult Disease. She said toxic stress creates lasting negative impacts on behavioral and physical health and she issued a call to action to translate science into public policy.

"We're a nation of idiots when it comes to babies," she said. "We make mistakes of ignorance. We must use what we know as early as possible and as widely as possible. What if Memphis rewarded people for what they do right, not waiting for them to do wrong?

"The most valuable natural resource on the planet is the human brain." 

Because of that truth, brain development for our youngest children in Memphis must be a top priority for our local agenda. We now have the conclusive scientific results to guide us and the in-depth knowledge to inform us, but to succeed, we need to mobilize a community-wide sense of urgency to give every child a fair start in life through maximum brain development.