The term “adverse childhood experiences” isn’t new, even though it suddenly has become widely used by the media. Also known as ACE’s, these early childhood traumas were the focus of a research project conducted between 1995 and 1997 in San Diego, California.
One of the largest investigations ever conducted to assess the correlations between childhood maltreatment and later-life health and well-being, it included more than 17,000 HMO members who underwent a comprehensive physical sam. This exam included participants giving detailed information about childhood experiences of trauma that included abuse, neglect and family dysfunction.
The results of the study were more than startling–they were shocking, and in several ways! First was the high number of people (65%) had one or more kinds of traumatic childhood experiences, with about 40% reported having two or more kinds. In less privileged groups, the numbers were even higher, and national averages could be as high as 50% or more. The most commonly reported kinds of childhood traumas in the study included:
- sexual, physical or verbal abuse;
- physical or emotional neglect;
- a parent who is diagnosed mentally ill or who is addicted to alcohol or another drug;
- a mother who is regularly beaten or verbally abused;
- a family member who is in prison;
- the loss of a parent through abandonment or divorce.
Childhood Trauma’s Role in Health
After completing the health exams and interviews, researchers then looked for correlations between ACEs scores and adult health problems. These results gave researchers their second big shock.
The study-codirectors, Dr. Vincent Felitti and Dr. Robert Anda, reported in 1998 that “Adverse childhood experiences showed a graded relationship to. . . adult diseases, including ischemic heart disease, cancer, chronic lung disease, skeletal fractures and liver disease.” Participants also showed a “proportionate relationship between ACE score and the likelihood of developing autoimmune diseases decades later in life.” They also found that depression, suicidality, chronic anxiety, amnesia and hallucinations were directly proportional to ACE trauma.
While research statistics are powerful, nothing brings home the impact of ACEs as much as these eight adult survivors who share their stories of adverse childhood experiences and the health issues they’ve had later in life, including obesity, depression, addictions and other wounds that won’t heal.
ACE Study Conclusions
Dr. Felitti was so personally impacted by his experiences of conducting the ACE Study that began traveling around the world to educate people. He gives speeches on topics such as “Why the Most Significant Factor Predicting Chronic Disease May Be Childhood Trauma.” He is adamant about the long-term impact of ACEs on people’s physical and mental health, saying “Contrary to conventional belief, time does not heal all wounds, since humans convert traumatic emotional experiences in childhood into organic disease later in life. One does not just ‘get over’ this, not even 50 years later, without serious efforts and treatment.”
The image below summarizes the study’s research findings, and shows how early ACEs disrupt neurodevelopment; cause social, emotional and cognitive impairment; increase the chances of adopting health-risk behaviors; raise the risk of disease, disability and social problems; and lead to early death.
ACES’ Long-term Impact
So ACEs have now become not only a public health issue, but also a social, political and financial issue. State and federal lawmakers are now taking action around the country to reduce the impact of childhood trauma and the toxic stress it creates. They are promoting trauma-informed policies and programs that will change lifetime outcomes in education and health.