Twenty years of research have established the connection between adverse childhood experiences and long-term health. Now researchers are looking for ways to measure the biology behind the correlation and try to reverse it.
By Amanda B. Keener 01.25.2021
Before you were 18, did a parent or other adult in your household ever push, grab, shove or slap you?
Was a household member depressed or mentally ill?
Did a household member go to prison?
But the biggest surprise from the study was that adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs, didn’t just lead to emotional and psychological ill effects, such as depression, later in life: People who had more traumatic experiences were also more likely as adults to have heart disease, cancer and a host of other health problems. And though people with higher ACE scores are more likely to smoke and suffer from alcoholism and drug abuse, behavioral factors don’t fully account for these increased disease risks.
Follow-up studies over the last 20 years have confirmed these findings and found links to other conditions, including type 2 diabetes and autoimmune disorders. Recent work has shown that ACEs can start to affect health even in childhood, increasing risks for asthma, cognitive delays, hormone imbalances, sleep disturbances, obesity and frequent infections.
Such work reveals that childhood adversity is a major public health issue. “Once you start understanding the prevalence of adversity in the general population, you can’t unsee it,” says Phil Fisher, a psychologist at the University of Oregon.