Early Childhood Health and the Life Course: The State of the Science and Proposed Research Priorities
This is one of 26 chapters published in the Handbook of Life Course Health Development.
Abstract: This chapter begins with an assertion that, beyond the cultural traditions that affirm childhood as a period of special and lasting importance, a new science of child development reveals an influence of the early years throughout the life course. Through processes of “biological embedding,” early developmental experiences and exposures become neurobiologically instantiated in the brain and genome, thereby affecting trajectories of health and development for the remainder of life. The socioeconomic maldistribution of exposures to adversities and misfortune allots a disproportionate share of physical and mental morbidities to those growing up in conditions of poverty and disadvantage. These outcomes now appear related to epigenetic interactions between aspects of allelic variation-based vulnerability and the assaultive or supportive conditions of early life. Future research should thus address how epigenetic regulation of gene expression is linked to the neurobiological processes underpinning developmental psychopathology and other maladaptive outcomes. Richer understanding of how early environments can amplify or diminish the impacts of adversity exposure will provide new insights to guide the construction of novel, effective, and early interventions.