Negative early experiences impacting brains of Indigenous children

Australia will not close the gap on Aboriginal health unless more is done to reverse the early life stress and trauma experienced by Indigenous children, new research suggests.

Negative early life experiences and lack of educational opportunities are having a major impact on the brains of Indigenous children, leading to a range of health and socio-economic problems in later life, early findings from the Koori Growing Old Well study suggest.

Findings from the study were presented today at the Brain Sciences UNSW ‘The Developing Brain from Womb to Tomb’ symposium.

“It is childhood that must be the focus of any attempt to improve the health of Aboriginal people,” says study leader, UNSW Professor Tony Broe, from Neuroscience Research Australia (NeuRA).

Health and lifespan in urban and regional Aboriginal communities (around 70% of the population) is no better than in more remote Aboriginal people (around 30% of the population).

“This suggests factors other than adult lifestyle and access to services are at play,” Professor Broe said.

“Childhood neural defects, plus additional social and education deficits and involvement in the criminal justice system, are all major determinants of poor adult health and we believe are accelerating dementia in older Indigenous people.”

With dementia rates for older Aboriginal people five times that of non-Indigenous Australians, there is significant emerging evidence that early life experiences may be part of the cause, Professor Broe said.

“Childhood experiences can affect growth of specific brain networks, such as the hippocampal and frontal lobe networks, which are implicated in later-life dementias,” Professor Broe said.

Indicators of early life stress for Aboriginal people include low birth weight, out-of-home-care rates that are six times that of non-Indigenous children, criminal justice sentences 21 times those of non-Indigenous Australians, increased risk of family violence, and education deficits well below other Australians.

“Obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes, smoking, alcohol and drug abuse, cardiovascular disease and mental illness are mid-life factors that follow early life stress,” Professor Broe said.

“All are known causes of early death and disability in Aboriginal people and all are known risk factors for later-life dementia in non-Indigenous studies.

“Only by ensuring that children enjoy a positive and supportive early life, and therefore normal brain development, will we see good adult outcomes and Aboriginal health problems solved.”

About the study: The largest investigation of its kind ever undertaken in Australia, the Koori Growing Old Well study is collecting data from 500 people aged over 60 in six urban/regional NSW communities. The study is being conducted with Aboriginal researchers and in collaboration with Aboriginal Community Controlled Organisations, using a life cycle approach that examines risk factors for health, ageing and dementia from childhood through adult life. It will be completed in early 2012.