The most important public health study you have probably never heard of…

The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study is the largest ever investigation conducted to asses associations between adverse childhood experiences such as maltreatment, abuse and trauma and how this affects health and wellbeing as adults.

The ACE study found that certain childhood experiences are major risk factors for the leading causes of illness and death as well as poor quality of life. Some of these adverse childhood experiences include:  experiencing physical, sexual or psychological abuse, parental marital breakdown, parental drug or alcohol dependence, parental mental health issues, parental imprisonment or having a parent who had been involved in domestic violence.

The ACE score attributes one point for each category of childhood adverse experience included in the study. The higher the score, the greater the exposure and therefore the greater risk of negative consequences later in life.

Three of the most important findings included:

Firstly, two thirds of the adults in the study had experienced one or more types of adverse childhood experience. Of those, 87 precent had experienced 2 or more types. This showed that people who had an alcoholic parent, for example, were likely to have also experienced physical abuse or psychological abuse. In other words, adverse childhood experiences usually didn’t happen in isolation.

Secondly, there was a direct link between childhood trauma and adult onset of chronic disease, as well as mental illness, doing time in prison, and work issues, such as high absenteeism.

Thirdly, more adverse childhood experiences resulted in a higher risk of physical, mental and social problems as an adult.

Things start getting serious around an ACE score of 4. Compared with people with zero ACEs, those with four categories of ACEs had  a 240 per cent greater risk of hepatitis, were 390 per cent more likely to have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (emphysema or chronic bronchitis), and a 240 per cent higher risk of a sexually-transmitted disease.

They were twice as likely to be tobacco smokers, 12 times more likely to have attempted suicide, seven times more likely to be alcoholic, and 10 times more likely to have injected drugs.

People with high ACE scores are more likely to be violent, to have more marriages, more broken bones, more drug prescriptions, more depression, more auto-immune diseases, and more work absences.

This study began to uncover a whole new light in relation to understanding about the lives of hundreds of millions of people around the world who use coping methods – such as alcohol, cannabis, food, sex, tobacco, violence, work, methamphetamines, thrill sports – to escape intense fear, anxiety, depression, anger.

Public health experts, social service workers, educators, therapists and policy makers commonly regard addiction as a problem. Some, however, are beginning to grasp that turning to drugs is a normal response to serious childhood trauma, and that telling people who smoke or overeat or overwork that these are bad for them and that they should stop doesn’t register when those approaches provide a temporary, but gratifying solution.

“The truth about childhood is stored up in our body, and although we can repress it, we can never alter it. Our intellect can be deceived, our feelings manipulated, our perceptions confused, and our body tricked with medication. But someday the body will present its bill” — Alice Miller


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