By: David Sexton, Jr.
The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study
The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study was originally conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Kaiser Permanente between the years of 1995 and 1997. Since then, it has become one of the most influential public health studies of its kind, prompting investigations into the impact of ACEs on several health and well-being outcomes, such as the risk of alcoholism, smoking, depression, financial distress, and poor work performance (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2016). The research team gathered information about participants’ past childhood experiences, and this information was then compared to self-reported health and well-being data provided by participants to determine how childhood experiences can affect the future well-being of the people who suffer childhood maltreatment (Felitti et al., 1998).
The researchers found that traumatic childhood experiences can have serious effects on development, health, and well-being in the future (Felitti, 1998). While a popular topic in the research community, the ACE study is a surprisingly obscure topic for the general public; however, its investigation has produced findings that suggest ACEs can have truly profound consequences for children and their futures. The following are, in my opinion, two of the most shocking insights the ACE study has produced:
Adverse Childhood Experiences Does NOT Refer Only to Physical Abuse
Upon encountering the term Adverse Childhood Experience, one may be inclined to assume it must refer to physical abuse. However, abuse is only one type of maltreatment that can have an enduring impact on a child’s future. According to the Felitti et al., (1998), Adverse Childhood Experiences refer to three categories of childhood maltreatment: abuse, neglect, and household challenges. Abuse can be physical, emotional, or sexual and neglect can be physical or emotional, as well. It is no surprise that such experiences in childhood could result in hardship for children in the future. However, it is both shocking and distressing to learn that more common, less blatant factors in childhood can also do great harm. Household challenges are factors about a child’s home life, such as growing up around domestic violence or relatives with substance abuse problems, and these experiences can have as significant an impact as physical abuse and neglect on future health outcomes (Felitti et al., 1998).
Adverse Childhood Experiences Result in Significant Changes to the Development of the Brain
The term Adverse Childhood Experiences refer to the types of maltreatment mentioned above, but Nakazawa (2016) importantly emphasizes that the term specifies these events are prolonged, unpredictable, and cause a great deal of stress. As a result, the children who experience them endure a near constant stress-response. The physiological stress response is the familiar fight-or-flight state that individuals experience to cope with a stressful event. ACEs put a child’s stress response into overdrive, which causes chemical changes to the genes responsible for regulating it. The result is a predisposition to maintain a high-stress response consistently and well into adult life, which puts individuals at risk of a plethora of serious conditions, such as heart disease.
Want to Learn More?
To learn more about the ACE study and the effects of ACEs on health and well-being, you can watch the MFLN Family Development Team’s archived free webinar, presented by Dr. Melissa Merrick, Science Lead for the ACE study. FREE CEUS are available upon completion.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, (2016, April 1). ACE study. Retrieved from: https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/acestudy/index.html
Felitti, V. J., Anda R. F., Nordenberg, D., Williamson, D. F., Spitz, A. M., Edwards, V., Koss M. P., & Marks, J. S. (1998). Relationship of childhood abuse and household dysfunction to many of the leading causes of death in adults: The adverse childhood experiences (ACE) study. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 14(4), 245-258.
Nakazawa, D. J., (2016, September 8). 7 ways childhood adversity changes a child’s brain. Retrieved from: https://acestoohigh.com/2016/09/08/7-ways-childhood-adversity-changes-a-childs-brain/
This post was written by a member of the MFLN Family Development Team. The Family Development team aims to support the development of professionals working with military families. Find out more about the Military Families Learning Network Family Development team on our website, Facebook, and Twitter.