Reporting contributed by Niki Reading
The idea that early childhood experiences help shape the trajectory of a person’s life—in both positive and negative ways—makes intuitive sense to most. But thanks to pioneering research and advocacy in the field of childhood trauma, our understanding of the connection between adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and lifelong health outcomes has grown exponentially in the last two decades.
A Foundational Study: ACEs
The Adverse Childhood Experiences study, or ACE Study, was conducted by researchers at Kaiser Permanente and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the late 1990s. They sought to examine the impact of specific negative childhood experiences and conditions on long-term health. ACEs fall into three categories: abuse, neglect, and family/household challenges. The categories capture experiences like mental illness experienced by family members, physical and substance abuse, divorce, and physical and emotional neglect.
In the study of more than 17,000 adults, researchers found that those with a high number of ACEs were at much greater risk for negative health outcomes like obesity, depression, sexually transmitted diseases, heart disease, broken bones, stroke, and even cancer. Those risks remained even when lifestyle choices like smoking and drinking were factored in. A high number of ACEs also affected life potential such as lowering academic achievement and increasing the amount of sick time taken off from work.
The study also found that the impact of ACEs was cumulative: the more ACEs a person had, the more likely that person was to suffer from negative health outcomes.
A Growing Movement
A movement to recognize, treat, and prevent ACEs has now bloomed, led by pioneers in the field like Dr. Nadine Burke Harris, a pediatrician and founder of the Center for Youth Wellness in San Francisco. In her book and related TED Talk, Burke Harris chronicles efforts to bring greater awareness of and treatment for ACEs into clinical practice.
A key strategy to fighting the effects of ACEs, according to Burke Harris and other experts, is to take a multidisciplinary approach—integrating physical and mental health, research, policy, education, and family supports.
What We Can Do to Fight ACEs
The effects of ACEs can be mitigated and treated, and recognizing this is an important first step in improving outcomes for children and families. In children who experience a high number of ACEs, having close relationships with stable adults—like teachers or grandparents—can help build resilience and make a big difference in lifelong health and wellness.
In Oregon, recognition and awareness of ACEs is increasingly widespread in education and public health circles, but funding and support for effective intervention and preventive programs remains challenging.
That’s why Children’s Institute and others continue to advocate for evidence-based programs like voluntary home visiting for pregnant mothers, parent training classes, high-quality child care, mental illness, and substance abuse treatment. These programs can change the trajectory of long-term health outcomes for families and children.
Stay tuned for our upcoming story on ACEs which features the Gladstone School District’s approach to recognizing the impact of ACEs on students and to providing safe, structured learning environments for their students.