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The consequences of living through serious trauma during one’s childhood don’t just dissipate as an adult. Quite the opposite, actually. For the first time, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is calling for earlier and more collaborative intervention in cases of childhood trauma, based on the findings of a report released late last year.
The analysis showed that preventing ACEs, or adverse childhood experiences, reduced the risk of at least five of the 10 leading causes of death: heart disease, cancer, respiratory disease, diabetes and suicide. The report, published in the CDC’s Vital Signs, said that up to 21 million cases of depression, 1.9 million cases of heart disease and 2.5 million cases of obesity could be avoided if steps were taken to lessen the impact of ACEs early on.
What Do ACEs Look Like?
Adverse childhood experiences are, not surprisingly, some of the worst things that can happen to kids. They include:
- Physical abuse
- Sexual abuse
- Verbal abuse
- Physical neglect
- Emotional neglect
- Having a family member who was depressed or diagnosed with a mental illness
- Having a family member who was addicted to alcohol or another substance
- Having a family member who was in prison
- Witnessing their mother being abused
- Losing a parent to separation, divorce or other reason
The more ACEs you have, the higher your risk for chronic disease or mental illness, or being violent or the victim of violence as an adult.
CDC’s To-Do List
Julie Eschelbach, MA, health communications specialist with the CDC, says the organization's role is to advance the science that promotes the prevention of ACEs.
“Specifically, we study strategies and programs that prevent ACEs from occurring in the first place. We take a public health approach that addresses risk and protective factors for ACEs at a population level, rather than only among individuals.”
In other words, the belief is that the more we know about ACEs as a society, the better we can prevent them. The CDC says it’s working to:
- Educate states and communities about effective social and economic supports that address financial hardship and other conditions that put families at risk for ACEs.
- Encourage employers to adopt and support family-friendly policies such as paid family leave and flexible work schedules.
- Increase access to programs that enhance parents’ and youths’ skills to handle stress, resolve conflicts and reduce violence.
- Improve school environments to lessen the impact of ACEs and prevent further trauma.
- Educate healthcare providers to recognize current risk in children and ACEs history in adults, and to refer patients to effective family services and support.
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“ACEs and their associated harms are preventable. Safe, stable, nurturing environments play a large role in preventing ACEs by creating the context that allows families to share quality time together, to discuss and resolve conflicts, and to provide emotional support to one another,” says Eschelbach.
Can the Effects of ACEs Be Reversed?
Lessen may be a better word, says Eschelbach. The strategies above “focus on changing norms, environments and behaviors in ways that can prevent ACEs from happening in the first place as well as lessen harms when ACEs do occur,” she says. The CDC wants to ensure a strong start for children to improve their future outcomes, meaning that even when ACEs do occur, what happens after that can change the rest of a child’s life for the better.
For another perspective, read, “Do Traumatic Childhoods Create High-Achieving Adults?”
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