"I've long been concerned that if kids grow up too fast, their brains will mature too fast and will lose plasticity at an earlier age. Then they'll go into school and have trouble learning at the same rate as their peers," says Mackey, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at Penn. "Of course, not every kid who experiences stress or [is] low income will show this pattern of accelerated development."
What would help, she thought, was a scalable, objective way -- a physical manifestation, of sorts -- to indicate how children embodied and responded to stresses in their world. Eruption timing of the first permanent molars proved to be just that.
In the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Mackey, with doctoral student Cassidy McDermott and colleagues from Penn's School of Dental Medicine and the University of Missouri-Kansas City, shows that children from lower-income backgrounds and those who go through greater adverse childhood experiences get their first permanent molars earlier. The findings, generated initially from a small study and replicated using a nationally representative dataset, align with a broader pattern of accelerated development often seen under conditions of early-life stress.
Cassidy L. McDermott, Katherine Hilton, Anne T. Park, et al. Early life stress is associated with earlier emergence of permanent molars [open], Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2105304118)