Understanding the Impact of Adverse Childhood Experiences - (ACEs)
By: Sara Hanson, B.S.W.
Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) are events that make a person feel like their safety is at risk. These include a variety of different types of distressing situations, from a car accident, to an act of violence, or a life threatening diagnosis. When a traumatic event like this happens in childhood, it can increase a person’s risk for a variety of health issues later in life. Sometimes we assume these issues are only mental health related, like depression, PTSD or substance use. However, studies have found that early exposure to trauma can lead to seven of the ten leading causes of death in the United States, including cardiovascular disease and cancer. Understanding the relationship that these experiences have on the overall wellbeing of a person is an important part of healthcare.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in partnership with Kaiser Permanente, completed a study in the 1990s where they surveyed approximately 17,000 adults in Southern California for Adverse Childhood Experiences. The ACEs they were screening for came from areas like abuse, household challenges, and neglect that may have occurred before the age of 18. Almost two thirds of the people participating responded that they had at least one ACE, while more than 20% had three or more. This information helped identify a connection between ACEs and an increased risk of chronic health conditions, as well as an increased likelihood that a person with more than one ACE would have trouble in school, difficulty maintaining employment, and engage in high risk behaviors. People with the highest number of ACEs even had a lower life expectancy.
Between the years of 2011 and 2014, 62% of adults from 23 states responded that they had one ACE, while 25% had 3 or more. The buildup of chronic or toxic stress in the body has an impact on brain and nerve development, DNA function, as well as a person’s ability to learn and use healthy coping skills. People with a higher number of ACEs are more likely to engage in impulsive and risky behavior, like using substances, food, or sex to manage their symptoms or emotions.
The ACE study highlights how important it is to get information about adverse events a person has experienced, because the impact on health can be significant. Early and routine screening for ACEs can help children get access to Early Intervention services, while for adults, identifying an adverse childhood experience can be followed up by treatment to focus on healthy coping skills and managing an overactive stress response. This can reduce the impact these ACEs have down the road. Regular exercise, good sleep habits, mindfulness, and psychotherapy are all proven tools to help reduce and manage stress.
We now have clear information about how certain symptoms and behaviors are a normal response to a stressful life experience. The ACE study is a great reminder that when discussing health issues, what happened to a person in their past can be just as important as the symptoms they have now.
If you or a family member are experiencing difficulty managing stress due to past ACEs, Behavioral Health Partners is here to help.
Behavioral Health Partners is brought to you by Well-U, offering eligible individuals mental health services for stress, anxiety, and depression. Our team of mental health professionals can accurately assess your symptoms and make recommendations for treatment. To schedule an intake appointment, give us a call at (585) 276-6900.
About the CDC-Kaiser ACE Study |Violence Prevention|Injury Center|CDC. (2020, April 13). Retrieved July 22, 2020, from https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/acestudy/about.html
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Smith, J. A., About the Author Follow Jeremy Adam Smith UC Berkeley Jeremy Adam Smith edits the GGSC’s online magazine, & Follow Jeremy Adam Smith UC Berkeley Jeremy Adam Smith edits the GGSC’s online magazine. (2018, March 30). How to Reduce the Impact of Childhood Trauma. Retrieved July 22, 2020, from https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/how_to_reduce_the_impact_of_childhood_trauma
Keith Stein |