Conducted in the late 1990s, the landmark ACE Study is one of the most notable studies to closely examine the nature and long-term effects of childhood trauma. The ACE Study evaluated 17,000+ adults to determine the mental and physical impact on those who faced adversities in their childhood home. A number of unexpected and groundbreaking findings emerged from the study, which concluded that the greater the number of adversities adults faced in childhood, the more likely they were to experience mental and physical health problems throughout life.

The ACE Study classified adversities as anything traumatic or stressful from physical, sexual, and emotional abuse or neglect to witnessing domestic violence or divorce between parents, experiencing family members or relatives going to jail, and living in a household where there was substance abuse. The study revealed the hidden nature of childhood adversity and the silence that surrounds it, while discovering various outcomes that were not anticipated from data previously available because of the lack of awareness and recognition of the full scale impact of childhood trauma. “I thought I would die never having told anyone about my childhood,” one ACE Study participant wrote in their questionnaire.

A remarkable discovery of the study was that childhood adversities affect adults of all backgrounds and is just as common among white, highly educated adults. Since minority children from lower income families are most prevalent in the welfare system, it was expected that most adults who have reported childhood trauma would be from this background. But, the ACE Study found otherwise. In fact, it proved that childhood trauma is exceedingly common, with 67% of participants indicating they had faced some type of major adversity in childhood.

The study also showed that the 10 key adversities very rarely occur in isolation and roughly 10.5% of participants had experienced 5 or more Adverse Childhood Experiences, and that 13% had faced Childhood Do Domestic Violence (CDV). It also reaffirmed that childhood adversity has an inter-generational domino effect, because the dire repercussions it causes, such as substance abuse or mental illness, “may make it likelier that the next generation will experience ACEs as well.”

Among dire outcomes associated with ACEs in adolescence are an increase in substance abuse and high risk behavior, but these outcomes often persist into adulthood and there is also a heightened risk of multiple health problems in later life, such as cardiovascular disease, liver disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, suicide attempts, alcohol dependence, marital problems, etc.

“If there is one common thread to many of the preventable diseases we face in the U.S., why are we not paying closer attention?” write Dr. Dube. This has been a common thread among clinicians in recent years. As the impact of childhood adversity begins to emerge from the shadows and become more widely recognized in professional circles, the urgency to step up and begin addressing the impact more proactively is growing.

The good news is that “research also suggests that humans have an innate capacity to adapt and positively transform, even after traumatic and stressful events,” given the right environment and supportive factors to help facilitate this. So the dire predictions can be reversed under the right conditions and with the right intervention strategies.

To learn more, read the full article, “How Childhood Trauma Can Affect Mental And Physical Health Into Adulthood” by Shanta R. Dube, Associate Professor at the School of Public Health at Georgia State University, on The Conversation via this link: