Many of us prefer to ignore our painful childhood experiences, but a landmark Centers for Disease Control and Prevention-Kaiser study shows these adverse events are strongly related to the development of a wide range of physical and mental health problems throughout our lifetimes.
The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) study looked at 17,000 mostly white, middle-class, college-educated adults receiving health-care services from Kaiser Permanente in San Diego.
The ACEs included in the study were (1) psychological abuse; (2) physical abuse; (3) sexual abuse; (4) emotional neglect; (5) physical neglect; (6) witnessing violence against a mother or other adult female; (7) substance misuse by a parent or other household member; (8) mental illness, suicide attempt or suicide death of a parent or other household member; (9) incarceration of a parent or other household member; and (10) parents’ separation or divorce.
The results were shocking.
First, the data showed a direct link between childhood trauma and adult onset of chronic disease including cancer and diabetes, as well as mental illness such as depression and all forms of addiction, doing time in prison and work problems like absenteeism.
Second, the study revealed that adverse childhood experiences are common. Approximately two-thirds of the adults in the study had experienced one or more types of adverse childhood experiences. Of those, 87 percent had experienced two or more types. This showed that people who had an alcoholic father, for example, were likely to have also experienced physical abuse, verbal abuse or emotional neglect. In other words, ACEs usually didn’t happen in isolation.
Finally, more adverse childhood experiences resulted in a higher risk of medical, mental and social problems as an adult. They were twice as likely to be smokers, 12 times more likely to have attempted suicide, seven times more likely to abuse alcohol and 10 times more likely to have injected street drugs. People with high ACEs scores are more likely to be violent and to have more marriages, more broken bones, more drug prescriptions, more depression, more autoimmune diseases and more work absences.
Coping with damage
As a therapist working with couples, I see in my practice how early childhood trauma impacts adult romantic relationships. Traumatic experience makes it hard to trust other people. And the depression, anxiety and drug and alcohol abuse that is linked to childhood trauma actively interferes with the formation and maintenance of healthy, intimate relationships.
While it’s not possible to change our histories, it is possible to cope with the damage of the early years. Take the ACEs questionnaire at tinyurl.com/yxaowbdn and share the results with your doctor or therapist. Understanding how your past influences your health and the way you cope when things go wrong can change your present and future. Turning to alcohol, multiple romantic partners, overeating and other forms of addiction are all unhealthy ways to manage the pain below the surface and lead to poor long-term health outcomes.
For more information on the landmark public health study, visit cdc.gov/violenceprevention/childabuseandneglect/acestudy.
Nancy Andersen is a licensed marriage and family therapist with a practice in Loyola Corners in Los Altos. For more information, call 833-9574 or visit nancyandersenmft.com.