Childhood stress, adult disease: The ACE study

Stress: Very bad for a child's health.

One of the topics I’ll be focusing on in 2012 is the role that early childhood stress plays in the development of disease later in life.

This is a relatively new and fascinating corner of the research world, with the original research being performed by Drs. Vincent Felitti and Robert Anda, who demonstrated the link between adverse childhood events (ACEs, as they’re commonly known) and chronic health issues in adulthood in the 1990s.

Felitti and Anda studied seven categories of adverse childhood experiences: psychological, physical, or sexual abuse; violence against mother; or living with household members who were substance abusers, mentally ill or suicidal, or ever imprisoned. The results of their 1998 study, which involved 9,300 southern California Kaiser Permanente patients, were startling:

“Persons who had experienced four or more categories of childhood exposure [ie, adverse childhood events], compared to those who had experienced none, had 4- to 12-fold increased health risks for alcoholism, drug abuse, depression, and suicide attempt; a 2- to 4-fold increase in smoking, poor self-rated health, ≥50 sexual intercourse partners, and sexually transmitted disease; and a 1.4- to 1.6-fold increase in physical inactivity and severe obesity.”

In a number of follow-up studies the relationship has held true, and recent advances in neuroscience have helped to explain the link. So how do ACEs lead to later chronic illness? Why do some people emerge from traumatic childhoods largely unscathed, while others succumb to drug abuse and violence? And most importantly, what can be done to lessen the effects of ACEs on a child’s future health?

Those are subjects for future posts. In the meantime, here’s a link to a Salon interview with the authors of “Scared Sick: The Role of Childhood Trauma in Adult Disease”, a new book on the subject. The Q and A with the authors is worth a read.


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Filed under Cancer, Child abuse, Obesity, Science

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