The Health Legacies of Childhood Traumas

CDC finds adverse childhood experiences have lasting effects on adult health, in a recent analysis.


Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), such as violence, abuse, and substance abuse in the household, have dramatic and lasting effects on adult health, according to a first-ever CDC analysis of data from 25 states. Toxic stress from ACEs can “derail optimal health and development by altering gene expression, brain connectivity and function, immune system function, and organ function,” as well as compromising health coping strategies, the researchers note.

In their study, ACEs were linked to at least 5 of the 10 leading causes of death. But they also found that preventing ACEs can have equally dramatic effects: for example, potentially reducing the number of cases of coronary artery disease (CAD) by 12.6%.

The researchers analyzed data from > 144,000 adults who responded to questions in the Behavior Risk Factor Surveillance System from 2015 through 2017. ACEs are common, the researchers say: 61% of adults had at least 1, and 1 in 6 adults experienced ≥ 4types of ACE. Women and several racial/ethnic minority groups had a greater risk. People who experienced ≥ 4types of ACE accounted for a “disproportionate share of the preventable fraction” of each of the 14 negative health and socioeconomic outcomes measured, including cancer, respiratory disease, diabetes, and suicide.

Extrapolating from the 25 states to national numbers, the researchers say preventing ACEs could result in 1.9 million fewer CADs, 2.5 million fewer overweight or obese adults, and 21 million fewer adults with depression.

The CDC has recommendations for rescuing potentially millions of adults from the lingering effects of childhood trauma: early intervention. The researchers cite, for instance, studies that have found preschool enrichment and early childhood home visitation programs reduce the rates of child abuse and neglect by 48% to 52%.

Moreover, health care providers can “anticipate and recognize” current risk for ACEs in children and history of ACEs in adults. They can refer patients to effective services and support, and link adults to family-centered treatment that includes substance abuse treatment and parenting interventions. The CDC also recommends that employers can adopt and support family-friendly policies, such as paid family leave and flexible work schedules. And states and communities can, among other initiatives, improve access to high-quality child care by expanding eligibility, activities offered, and family involvement.

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