How Childhood Trauma Affects Adult Health

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Researchers have found direct correlations between childhood trauma and later health problems

The ACE test has been gaining traction in recent years as a way to better understand mental and physical health disorders. ACE stands for Adverse Childhood Experience, and it measures and scores the traumatic experiences that may have occurred in a person’s past. The test asks about 10 different kinds of experiences: from losing a parent to divorce or illness, to the experience of physical or sexual abuse. The more of these experiences one reports, the higher the score.

Jane Stevens is the founder and editor of ACEsTooHigh, a national organization focused on this field. She says researchers have found direct correlations between childhood trauma and later health problems. “So for example, if you have four ACEs, your likelihood of being an alcoholic is seven times greater than if you have zero. Twelve times more likely to attempt suicide. Twice as likely to have heart disease and cancer.”

Dana Hargunani, Child Health Director for the Oregon Health Authority says an estimated (pdf) 20 percent of Oregonians have four or more ACEs. The state is using the research to inform health policy.

“We’re focusing the efforts in two ways: improving the care that we deliver to individuals who’ve experienced trauma themselves and most importantly, how do we start to prevent adverse childhood experiences?” Hargunani says.

Jane Stevens says she thinks the implications of the ACE study go well beyond clinical applications. Educators have started to pick up on the research and begun to create so-called trauma-informed schools.

What they do is they take a different approach to a kid acting out or a kid withdrawing. Instead of saying, you know, dropping the hammer and saying, you know, ‘What’s wrong with you, you’re outa here.” Instead they say, ‘What happened to you, and how can we help you?’

Stevens says researchers have found that the reason that childhood trauma is correlated with so many kinds of health problems is the stress hormones that are released in such an event “changes the structure and function of a kid’s brain.” And she says, since these stress hormones affect practically every organ system, it’s almost infinite the kinds of related complications that can develop in later life.

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