If you experienced trauma as a child - from your parents' divorce to physical abuse - these events could affect your health for years to come.
"Research shows us that traumatic childhood events - what the medical community calls adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs, significantly increase a person's risk for developing a number of health problems, even decades after the trauma occurs," says Kate Hill-Johnson, an administrative director of community health improvement at Franciscan Health. "Some experiences in childhood are so traumatic that they impact the physical development of the brain, of the neurological system, and of the body. And when you have such trauma, it can lead to some really poor health outcomes."
What Are ACES?
ACES are adverse childhood experiences that can impact your health years after the trauma occurs.
"There was a study done in about 1995 that looked at experiences kids have and what kinds of poor health outcomes are experienced," Hill-Johnson said. "And what the researchers found is that there are 10 unique events that can happen in childhood that tend to impact health the most."
- Physical, emotional or sexual abuse
- Physical or emotional neglect
- Parental mental illness, substance dependence or incarceration
- Parental separation or divorce
- Parental abandonment or loss
- Witnessing domestic violence
...and are linked to:
- Heart disease
- High blood pressure
- Anxiety disorders
- Other problems
The Effects of ACES Are Compounding
The more ACEs one has, the more significantly a person's health risks increase. For example, compared with someone with no ACEs, someone with four is:
- Two-and-a-half times more likely to develop hepatitis
- Four-and-a-half times more likely to experience depression
- 12 times as likely to attempt suicide
Pregnant mothers may experience decreased birth weights and gestational ages of their infants with each additional experience. And the more experiences one has, the more prescription medications and hospital visits a woman will require throughout her lifetime. A recent study found that people with 3 or more ACEs had incurred medical costs of 10% or more of their household income.
Why Do ACES Impact Your Long-Term Health?
"The effects of high amounts of stress on the brain and the body's response system don't stop when the stress is over," says Hill-Johnson. "They last throughout our lifetimes." Highly stressful experiences affect the parts of the brain responsible for:
- Impulse control and executive function
- Fear response
- Fight-or-flight response
- Feelings of pleasure and reward
"When we experience a single dose of stress, the brain and body respond instinctively in an attempt to save our lives," explains Hill-Johnson. "However, when stress repeatedly activates these functions, such as during repeated episodes of abuse, the brain's and body's responses change and actually become harmful to our immune and hormonal systems, memory, learning and emotions - even our DNA. When this type of response develops during childhood, it can lead to a lifetime of harmful effects."
The effects not only lead to disease, but also to a negative sense of self-worth, harmful behaviors, trouble sleeping and relationship challenges.
If You Have ACES, What Can You Do?
"Even though these things happen to all of us, we can always mitigate our risks by engaging in healthy behaviors and seeing your primary care provider on a regular basis to talk about health concerns that you have," Hill-Johnson said.
- Know that ACEs are not shameful. They are common among people of all socio-economic classes, education levels, races and cultures. In fact, two-thirds of Americans have had at least one traumatic experience.
- Talk with your primary care physician. Be sure to address your mental health, physical health and nutrition. Need a new physician? Find a doctor.
- Meditate. Mindful meditation changes our body's stress response and actually improves the brain's composition in the same areas that are negatively affected by the traumas we experience.
- Do yoga. Yoga changes the blood flow to the brain, supporting areas that are negatively affected by traumatic experiences.
- Commit to providing safety, love and protection for your children. Recognize that children living at home with you today are vulnerable to long-term effects of today's traumatic experiences.
- Talk with your children - even when they're adults. Help them understand the risk factors of ACEs, and encourage them to address their own physical and mental health.
Finally, appreciate that surviving traumatic experiences helps you embrace others with deeper empathy and value life's better moments more fully.
Throughout the rest of 2019, Franciscan Health will have community showings of one-hour documentaries on ACES and resiliency followed by panel discussions.