Negative childhood trauma can significantly impact adult health. Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) can include physical, emotional, and sexual abuse. Physical and emotional neglect are also covered under this term. Other situations that qualify as ACEs are having a parent who abuses drugs or alcohol, is in jail, is mentally ill, or is personally a victim of domestic violence.
The largest study of ACEs and their effects on adult health began in 1995 by Kaiser Permanente together with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and is still ongoing. Study participants have been interviewed and tracked over the years to follow health outcomes and their relationship to the participants’ childhood circumstances. The study has demonstrated a clear link between ACEs and health problems, such as depression, chronic lung disease, cancer, and heart disease. High risk behaviors such as smoking, alcohol and substance abuse, severe obesity, and promiscuity are also prominent among those with ACEs.
Screening for ACEs
Researchers studying ACEs have developed a test that predicts the likelihood of a child developing health issues as an adult, relative to any traumatic experiences. The test tallies the frequency of exposure to the traumas of physical, emotional, or sexual abuse; physical or emotional neglect; household mental illness; household substance abuse; witnessing a mother treated violently or an incarcerated household member; and experiencing parental separation or divorce.
The more exposure to ACEs, the higher a person’s score. Compared with a score of zero, having been exposed to four ACEs correlates with a 700 percent increase in alcoholism, as well as a 400 percent increase in emphysema, and a 200 percent increase in cancer.
Protecting Children from Traumatic Events
Child Protective Services received 683,000 reports of child abuse and neglect in 2015. In the same year, the CDC says that about 1,670 children suffered fatal injuries from abuse and neglect. Children that survive abuse and neglect are at high risk of developing serious health issues as adults. Sadly, childhood trauma is preventable. There are many ways to help prevent child abuse and neglect, including:
- Public engagement and education campaigns
- Economic support for families, including family friendly work policies
- Making sure families have access to quality care and education early in life
- Improving quality of child care through licensing and accreditation requirements
- Parenting classes that cover skills and relationship approaches
- Providing financial support to local groups aiming to improve parenting and strengthen families
- Speaking out when witnessing an act of abuse or neglect
A major finding of the CDC Kaiser study is that Adverse Childhood Experiences are common. Nearly two-thirds of study participants reported at least one such experience, and almost 40 percent testified to two or more ACEs. The emotional and physical cost to victims, as well as the economic effect of ACEs on society, is well documented and must be addressed.
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