The more we learn about the impact of climate change, the more worrisome it becomes.
The impact of long-term climate change on human health, including the effects of higher temperatures, drought, and food scarcity, are documented and they are frightening. The impact of short-term weather events related to climate change on human health are less well known, but a new study documents how the impact of weather related stress on pregnant women can have a devastating impact on the health of children later in life.
Superstorm Sandy hit the New York metropolitan area on Oct. 29, 2012. Forty-eight New Yorkers died as a result of the storm and almost 100,000 homes and buildings were damaged or destroyed on Long Island alone. Children who were born in the months after Sandy struck are now nine years old. A study published in The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry found that as preschoolers aged 2 to 5 these children had dramatically higher rates of depression, anxiety and other mental health problems. Interestingly, there were differences between boys and girls. Boys were much more likely to have ADHD and exhibit anti-social behavior than girls, while girls were much more likely to suffer from depression and anxiety. The study did not analyze the intensity of mental health disorders and whether they were more severe than those affecting other children.
The study compared children whose mothers lived on Long Island or in Queens during Sandy with 97 children who were born prior to Sandy or were conceived later. Children whose mothers were subject to extreme stress during and after the storm were nearly 17 times more likely to suffer from depression and five times more likely to have an anxiety or attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder than children in a control group. According to Yoko Nomura, a professor of psychology at the CUNY Graduate Center and the principal investigator for the study research documents the connection between maternal stress during pregnancy and these conditions. A weather disaster can cause intense stress that produces excess amounts of cortisol, a stress related hormone that is passed from the mother to the fetus through the placenta. Maternal stress during Sandy was not only related to the storm itself, but also to families being uprooted and the cost of rebuilding. Another reason for childhood mental health problems may be how a child was treated after birth.
The study focused on these children when they were in pre-school and follow up studies need to be conducted as these children become older and progress through school to better understand the longer-term effect of climate change intensified weather events on human mental health.
These findings about Superstorm Sandy are consistent with research that shows prenatal stress can have significant effects on a pregnancy, maternal health, and child development. Activation of the maternal stress response can cause physiological changes in the developing fetus including fetal neurobiological development. Stress can also exert an indirect impact on child development by causing mothers to suffer perinatal depression. If a pregnant woman suffers from stress, is anxious. or depressed, her child is at increased risk for having emotional problems, ADHD, conduct disorder and impaired cognitive development.