Dr. Robert Block, the former President of the American Academy of Pediatrics stated, “ Adverse childhood experiences are the single greatest unaddressed public health threat facing our nation today.”
We all have experiences in our childhood that cause us pain. Maybe it’s just one or two instances that we can easily pinpoint, but for some, those painful and negative experiences happened a lot more often.
In 1997, a study was done to understand how exposure to adversity affects the developing minds and bodies of children. The study was called Adverse Childhood Experiences Study, or ACES. The study focuses on 10 areas of trauma: physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, physical neglect, emotional neglect, having a parent who suffered with a mental illness, parents who were separated or divorced, or a having a parent who engaged in substance abuse. The study tested 17,500 adults and used their results to link them to later health issues. The outcome was eye opening. Experiences of early adversity were linked to poorer health outcomes among adults. According to the CDC’s resource page for ACES, childhood trauma has been linked to risky health behaviors such as smoking and substance use, chronic health conditions ranging from cancer to diabetes, and early death.
There are real neurologic reasons why people exposed to high doses of adversity are more likely to engage in high-risk behavior. “It affects areas like the nucleus accumbens, the pleasure and reward center of the brain that is implicated in substance dependence,” Dr. Nadine Burke Harris, an expert on ACES explains. “It inhibits the prefrontal cortex, which is necessary for impulse control and executive function, a critical area for learning. And on MRI scans, we see measurable differences in the amygdala, the brain’s fear response center.”
However, even if you don’t engage in high-risk behavior, it turns out you’re still more likely to develop heart disease or cancer. This has to do with the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, the brain’s and body’s stress response system that governs our fight-or-flight response.
Burke Harris gives the example of walking in a forest and seeing a bear. Your body’s natural response is to release cortisol and adrenaline. Your airways open up and your pupils dilate. Your heart starts to pound. All of this readies your body to either fight that bear, or run from it. That’s an amazing thing our bodies can do when we sense danger. But what happens when the bear comes home every night? That fight or flight response is activated over and over again. It goes from a reaction that’s adaptive or life saving, to maladaptive or health damaging.
When children, whose brains and bodies are just developing, experience that stress response and activation repeatedly, it has a huge effect. Not only is brain structure and function affected, but the developing immune system, the hormonal system, and the way their DNA is read and transcribed changes as well.
Repeated and consistent activation of the fight or flight response is called toxic stress, and when this is due to childhood trauma, it can produce poor health outcomes.
Health Conditions Associated with ACES:
Autoimmune Disease: 63% of patients with lupus reported having one or more ACE, almost 20% had four or more ACES.
Cardiovascular Disease: There is a direct link between ACES and cardio metabolic outcomes, including heart disease, hypertension, and obesity.
Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD): When factoring out contributors like smoking, a study showed that the risk for COPD increased as the number of ACES increased. ACES were shown to be an independent risk factor.
Diabetes: Exposure to ACES increases the risk of developing type 2 diabetes by 32% when compared to patients with no ACES.
Cancer: ACES strongly predict behaviors that increase the risk of adult cancer.
Depression: Having even just one ACE is linked with almost three times the odds of depressive symptoms.
Substance Abuse: In a 2018 study, it was shown that adults who experienced household abuse were 30% more likely to binge drink alcohol than the general population.
ACES is treatable. Screening is the first step in addressing the health risks associated with ACES. Using the ACES test can help identify interventions that need to take place for a person’s success and the areas where treatment might be needed. Healthcare can provide counselors, sr social workers, and other professionals who are equipped to provide care to adults who have experienced ACES.
Addressing unresolved mental health issues can help to free the mind from anxiety, depression, and enables many to once again experience joy in life. If you or someone you know is in need of support regarding mental health or substance use issues please reach out to us today at 1-888-986-7848.