The ACE Study looks at the correlation between ACEs, or Adverse Childhood Experiences, and health. Between 1995 and 1997, 17,000 middle-income, college-educated adults with access to good health care in the US joined the study. They had a standardized physical exam and filled out a confidential survey with questions about childhood maltreatment and family dysfunction, as well as current health status and behaviors.
While the ACE Study continues to track the health of participants, there are already major findings.
- Almost two-thirds of study participants had at least one ACE, and more than one in five reported three or more ACEs.
- As the number of ACEs increases, the risk of chronic illness, risky behaviors, and suicide attempts also increases. The correlation is as strong as the correlation between unprotected sex and pregnancy. Chronic toxic stress affects a child’s growing brain and body in consistent, predictable ways.
Your ACE score
You can check your ACE score here: Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) Questionnaire. Note that while these 10 questions cover a lot of ground, they do not cover all types of childhood abuse, neglect, and catastrophe. Feel free to add points to your score for chronic toxic stress you experienced not covered in the questionnaire.
You can also check your resilience score: Resilience/Stress Questionnaire. We each have protective factors that helped us survive. Our bodies find ways to manage chronic stress. We find nurturing allies, and ways to be self-nurturing. Families hand down strategies for survival.
Part of the majority
People who experienced childhood trauma tend to feel alone and abnormal. Society’s message is that we should be strong enough to overcome trauma’s effects, and we should definitely avoid impinging on anyone else. Illness and dysfunction are viewed as the individual’s fault, and the individual’s responsibility to fix.
In fact, a large majority of people experience significant childhood trauma, making it sadly “normal“. The effects are real and profound. This is a social and medical crisis that requires more than individual resources to address.
Pediatrician Nadine Burke Harris founded the Center for Youth Wellness, where they use the ACE study information to directly help patients. They screen children for adverse experiences and intervene with home visits, education, psychotherapy, mindfulness and coping skills, and referrals to other practitioners. Her TED talk is a great summary of the effects of Adverse Childhood Experiences and her work to help people heal.
Imagine if we all had such comprehensive trauma-informed support as children and adults.
We are allowed to have heart disease, diabetes, and other illnesses that are falsely labeled “lifestyle” diseases. Our bodies are allowed to be heavier, which is not a sign of ill health in itself.
We are allowed to try to regulate our irritated nervous systems with substances both legal and illegal. We are allowed to have troubled relationships. We are allowed to have a seemingly bottomless well of need inside for comforting and love.
We are allowed to be perfectionists and drive ourselves fiercely to success after success. We are allowed to work desperately hard at healing.
Responsive to treatment
Fortunately, the brain and body remain responsive past childhood, so we can mitigate the effects of chronic stress. We can meditate. We can seek out caring, kind people both professionally and personally. We can write and draw our stories. We can allow our emotions time and space to emerge. We can spend time outside, and gently move our bodies.
If we have money and access to well-supplied grocery stores, we can buy food that puts less stress on our bodies. If we have money and access to healers, we can get trauma-informed bodywork and psychotherapy. If we have health insurance and money, we can get medical treatment.
With the US social structure and medical system, people with less privilege are more likely to grow up in traumatic circumstances and less likely to have access to effective care. The effects of trauma are more likely to be seen as personal failings, rather than physical consequences of Adverse Childhood Experiences.
Kindness and understanding
The most powerful action we can take is to stop blaming ourselves and others for misfortune, illness, and struggle. We have the bodies we have, unfairly marked by past trauma. We can start where we are, and treat ourselves with kindness and understanding as we heal.
- Center for Disease Control ACE Study official website
- Finding Your ACE Score
- Resilience/Stress Questionnaire
- ACEs Frequently Asked Questions has a lot of information and resources on the ACE study
- How Childhood Trauma Affects Health Across a Lifetime 16 minute TED talk by Nadine Burke Harris
- In her book Childhood Disrupted, science journalist Donna Jackson Nakazawa covers the current research on how the brain is changed by toxic stress, and what can be done about it.