More than 100 years ago, abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass said it is easier to build strong children than to repair broken adults. Recently, Harvard economist Ed Glaeser, when asked for his advice for cities, said: “It’s fundamentally about kids. You really want to be investing in children.”

There are truisms that span centuries simply because they are obvious and self-evident. Focusing on our youngest children heads that list, and it is one time when conventional wisdom, science, and exhaustive research coincide.

That’s why The Urban Child Institute has been so busy over 60 days emphasizing the pivotal factors that determine if our children have their best chances to succeed in school and in life — toxic stress and brain development.

TUCI brought Robin Karr-Morse to Memphis to discuss her new book, Scared Sick: The Role of Childhood Trauma in Adult Disease, which explains how toxic stress triggers physical and mental health issues that have created a major public health crisis in our city and in our nation. “What happens emotionally affects us physically,” she said. “Healthy, healing experiences protect us against disease. The opposition [sic] is also true – the emotion/disease connection. Seventy percent of the causes of disease are epigenetics.”

It’s a stunning statement, especially as it relates to Memphis because of the large number of children living in situations of toxic stress. Epigenetics – the study of changes in gene activity that do not involve alterations to the genetic code but still get passed down – has shown that the answer to health problems lies beyond nature and nurture, because powerful negative environmental conditions – diet, stress, prenatal nutrition – can leave an imprint on genetic material.

In other words, we know that we can shorten our own lives by smoking or overeating, but it’s becoming clear that these behaviors can also predispose our children to disease and early death. Epigenetic changes are a biological response to an environmental stressor, but it is not DNA. “When someone has neither the option of flight or fight, terror in the face of helplessness results in a freeze,” said Ms. Karr-Morse. “Trauma is fear frozen in the body physically. Babies can be born traumatized at birth.”

Memphis is near the bottom of most health-related indicators, and no city has a greater stake in addressing the toxic stress that predisposes people to health problems from birth to death. “Childhood trauma is the elephant in the room in Memphis,” she said. “It’s a key factor in altering horrible health outcomes. What if Memphis created a plan to show how a city can shift their place in the health ratings? Trauma talk is brand new, so why not have Memphis set the pace by convening all the key players focused on a continuum concentrating on zero to 3 years?”