What does a parent’s divorce have to do with heart disease? If a parent was an alcoholic, is their child at greater risk of depression in adulthood? Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) such as these are events or situations that a child experiences as extremely stressful.
Some stressful experiences are so traumatic that they may alter a child’s developing brain and immune system. This increases the risk of lifelong health and a behavioral health diagnosis in adulthood.
The Mind-Body Connection
In the 1990s, primary care provider Dr. Robert Anda at Kaiser Permanente, and epidemiologist Dr. Vincent Felliti at the CDC, published a landmark study of ACEs and disease. According to their study, the more adverse experiences a child has, the greater their likelihood of developing stroke, heart disease, depression, and cancer in adulthood.
Drs. Anda and Felliti asked more than 17,000 adult patients of Kaiser Permanente about their health histories and experienced before age 18.
The questions they asked covered 10 categories of ACEs:
- Emotional abuse
- Physical abuse
- Sexual abuse
- Emotional neglect
- Physical neglect
- Witnessing mother being treated violently
- Losing a parent to separation or divorce
- Living with someone who abused drugs/alcohol
- Living with someone who was mentally ill
- Having a household member in prison
What the study discovered
The surveys were scored, tallying the number of ACEs categories a participant had experienced. Two-thirds of the study participants had at least one adverse childhood experience. Researchers then examined these ACE scores as they relate to a variety of serious health conditions. They learned that:
- With an ACE score of 4 or more, an adult’s risk of developing heart disease or cancer doubles
- With an ACE score of 5 or more, there’s an eight-time greater chance of alcoholism
- With an ACE score of 6 or more, an adult will die on average 20 years earlier
Good News: What’s Predictable is Preventable
ACEs don’t have to become destiny. Resilience research shows that a healthy, nurturing bond with a parent or caregiver can reverse and repair the damage of ACEs, effectively rewiring a child’s brain.
The ACEs assessment is a tool for understanding population health. When we understand risks, we are empowered to make changes for ourselves and, most importantly, for our children.
ACEs tend to get passed down from generation to generation. But the cycle is preventable. ACEs are common across all income levels, races, and demographics. To interrupt the cycle of adversity, schools and healthcare providers are beginning to universally screen students and patients for ACEs.