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Home Articles Does Childhood Trauma Cause Health Problems in Adults?

Does Childhood Trauma Cause Health Problems in Adults?

How adverse childhood experiences affect mental and physical health in later life

Does Childhood Trauma Cause Health Problems in Adults?

It’s easy to connect mental health disorders like depression and anxiety to childhood trauma. But it turns out there are physical effects that can result from childhood trauma as well. Adults who experienced damaging childhoods are more likely to have chronic health problems such as heart disease, cancer, liver disease and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), according to the CDC-Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experiences Study.

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The study, which was conducted between 1995 and 1997 but continues to this day as a highly respected piece of research, found that nearly two-thirds of participants had at least one adverse childhood experience, or ACE. And those who had one were 87 percent likely to have two or more. 

The 10 ACEs outlined in the study were:

  1. Physical abuse
  2. Sexual abuse
  3. Verbal abuse
  4. Physical neglect
  5. Emotional neglect
  6. Having a family member who was depressed or diagnosed with a mental illness
  7. Having a family member who was addicted to alcohol or another substance
  8. Having a family member who was in prison
  9. Witnessing their mother being abused
  10. Losing a parent to separation, divorce or other reason

Since its release, new surveys have added other types of trauma, such as witnessing violence outside the home, witnessing a sibling being abused, living in an unsafe neighborhood, being bullied by a peer or adult, experiencing racism and losing a loved one to deportation. 

How Knowing Your ACEs Score Can Help

The ACE survey is scored zero to 10. Each adverse childhood experience is equal to one point. The study found the more ACEs you have, the greater your risk for developing chronic disease or mental illness, being violent or being the victim of violence in adulthood. It also increases the likelihood you’ll smoke, abuse alcohol or drugs, be affected by financial stress and have relationship problems. But knowing your ACEs score can help you overcome these problems. 

“The knowledge is very important to have,” says Jane Stevens, founder and publisher of ACEs Connection, a social networking website dedicated to raising awareness about adverse childhood trauma and its effect on adult health and behavior. “It changes our entire understanding of why we behave the way we do. Once you learn about ACEs science, you realize you can heal. That in and of itself is very powerful.”

Stevens says she believes ACE surveys should be standard at doctor physicals. Many medical professionals are just starting to include them. 

“It’s beginning to happen, but it’s slow progress,” she says. “For physicians, the question is, what do we do with this information? But the truth is you can reduce ER visits simply by asking the questions and giving people some understanding and acknowledgment on where they stand.”

The next step, Stevens says, is for providers to offer wrap-around services to their patients, such as connecting them to resources for basics like food, diapers and transportation if needed. She also advocates for recommending therapy to help deal with underlying trauma.

“With professional help, people can learn the tools and skills for building resilience,” she says. “It changes the way they start feeling about themselves.” 

It can be particularly helpful for adults who repeatedly find themselves in relationships with people who abuse. 

“You weren’t equipped with the skills to know who is going to be good for you. You have no exposure to that, and that’s not your fault,” Stevens says. “There’s no blame or shame or punishment associated with that. Let’s just fix it.”

If you are currently experiencing abuse, consider reaching out to a trained advocate—you can find one near you on our Find Help page.

Your childhood may seem like a lifetime ago, but the experiences you had when you were young helped shape who you are today, for better or worse. Find out Why You Can’t Just ‘Get Over’ the Adversity You Faced in Childhood.