Over a three year period more than 17,000 California adults completed confidential questionnaires regarding their childhood experiences and their current state of health. The CDC-Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study is one of the largest studies of childhood abuse and neglect and the consequences to mental and physical health later in life. The primary adverse childhood experiences were:
---- Physical or emotional neglect
---- Physical, emotional or sexual abuse
---- Parental mental illness
---- Parental substance dependence
---- Parental incarceration
---- Parental separation or divorce
---- Domestic violence
Two-thirds of participants disclosed at least one ACE. One in five disclosed three or more ACEs. The main findings of the study were that the more ACEs were reported, the greater in adulthood was the likelihood of:
Alcoholism and alcohol abuse
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease
Health-related quality of life
Illicit drug use
Ischemic heart disease
Poor work performance
Risk for intimate partner violence
Multiple sexual partners
Sexually transmitted diseases
Early initiation of smoking
Early initiation of sexual activity
Risk for sexual violence
Poor academic achievement
American pediatrician Nadine Burke Harris is a leader in the field of childhood medicine. Her TED Talk video “How childhood trauma affects health across a lifetime” (BELOW) has been viewed more than three million times. Her bio states she is “a leader in the movement to transform how we respond to early childhood adversity and the resulting toxic stress that dramatically impacts our health and longevity. By revealing the science behind childhood adversity, she offers a new way to understand the adverse events that affect all of us throughout our lifetimes.
“Burke Harris speaks to how we can disrupt this destructive cycle through interventions that help retrain the brain and body, foster resilience, and help children, families and adults live healthier, happier lies. A pediatrician, mom and the founder/CEO of the Center for Youth Wellness, Burke Harris has brought these scientific discoveries and her new approach to audiences at the Mayo Clinic, American Academy of Pediatrics and Google Zeitgeist.”
During her TED Talk she delves into the specifics on how abusive parenting damages children:
“We now understand better than we ever have before how exposure to early adversity affects the developing brains and bodies of children. It affects areas like the nucleus accumbens, the pleasure and reward center of the brain that is implicated in substance dependence. It inhibits the prefrontal cortex, which is necessary for impulse control, an executive function, a critical area for learning. And on MRI scans, we see measurable differences in the amygdala, the brain's fear response center.
“So there are real neurologic reasons why folks are exposed to high doses of adversity are more likely to engage in high-risk behavior. And that's important to know. But it turns out that even if you don't engage in any high-risk behavior, you're still more likely to develop heart disease or cancer. The reason for this has to do with the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, the brain's and body's stress response system that governs our fight-or-flight response. How does it work?
“Well, imagine you're walking in the forest, and you see a bear. Immediately, your hypothalamus sends a signal to your pituitary, which sends a signal to your adrenal gland that says, release stress hormones adrenaline, cortisol. And so your heart starts to pound. Your pupils dilate. Your airways open up. And you are ready to either fight that bear or run from the bear. And that is wonderful if you're in a forest, and there's a bear. But the problem is what happens when the bear comes home every night. And this system is activated over and over and over again.
“And it goes from being adaptive or lifesaving to maladaptive or health-damaging. Children are especially sensitive to this repeated stress activation because their brains and bodies are just developing. High doses of adversity not only affect brain structure and function. They affect the developing immune system, developing hormonal systems and even the way our DNA is read and transcribed.”
Nadine Burke Harris, “How Does Trauma Affect A Child’s DNA?” TED Radio Hour, 25 August, 2017 http://www.npr.org/templates/transcript/transcript.php?storyId=545092982
Centers For Disease Control and Prevention, “About the CDC-Kaiser ACE Study” https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/acestudy/about.html