The Groundbreaking Importance of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) | by Alexa Moody
Tonight, January 17th 2017, I had the opportunity to attend a community event hosted by Mission Central and Communities In Schools of PA revolving around a documentary called Resilience: The Biology of Stress & The Science of Hope. This documentary outlined the groundbreaking discovery of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and their effects on the health of a person.
The gist is this: the more traumatic events you experienced in your childhood, the more likely you are to have negative health consequences in adulthood.
Now in some respects, this seems obvious to many of us. Of course having adverse experiences in childhood such as poverty, abuse, or neglect would affect our adulthood. Saying that such experiences could contribute to mental illnesses such as depression or anxiety, or make a person more susceptible to addictions, would be like saying water is wet. But what wasn’t expected was the very real physical and biological effect these experiences had on our bodies.
Did you know that if your ACE score is 4 out of 10, this increases your risk of emphysema or chronic bronchitis by nearly 400 percent, and suicide by 1200 percent? High ACE scores are directly correlated to higher instances of violence, more broken bones, more drug prescriptions, and more autoimmune diseases, among other surprising findings. People with an ACE score of 6 or higher have a life expectancy 20 years less than if they had a zero score.1
The theme throughout this documentary can be boiled down to this phrase: What is predictable is preventable.
This is so important.
What is predictable is preventable.
If we know that a higher ACE score correlates to the more health problems an individual is likely to have, then the obvious response is to begin making a real impact at lowering ACEs.
A startling statistic that was given during this documentary is this: of the 3 trillion dollars spent on healthcare in the United States, only 5% of it was used for preventative care. There is understandably an emphasis on getting those who are the sickest the care they need first because their situation is the most dire. Here at Please Live, we do the same thing – we want to first and foremost reach out to individuals who are actively suicidal so that we can stop them from making that choice. However, this is fourth-stage intervention, meaning, it is much preferred we fight suicide from stage one, before an individual ever has thoughts of suicide. If we focus on prevention and early intervention of mental health problems, then the suicide rates will decrease as a result of our stage-one focus.
Here’s how this all ties in: the ACEs study was revolutionary in that we can clearly see that the effects of toxic stress, i.e., frequent or prolonged adversity during childhood such as abuse, neglect, poverty, or violence without adequate adult support. This toxic stress literally changes the development of the brain, leading to higher instances of negative health effects across the board. We as a society may put up artificial categories between mental and physical health, but our bodies do not. To our biology, we are simply one body.
So what’s the takeaway on all of this?
As is Please Live’s style, I want to take a three-pronged approach to how to practically implement this new knowledge to make a real difference right now:
The data is real and it is potentially life changing. Within our communities, we need to make the results of the ACE study known, especially when considering preventative care. Our healthcare system needs to be utilizing the ACE questionnaire in new patient paperwork, in med school, in hospitals, and in county social work. Policies must be updated to recognize the predictability of negative health outcomes to focus on prevention and early intervention. These steps will not only ensure a healthier community, but will also save communities millions of dollars as the rates of crime, violence, and incarceration decrease.
Parents and Teachers:
We want to stress early intervention. Like, early early. Resilience: The Biology of Stress & The Science of Hope showed incredible ways that kindergarten and elementary school teachers helped to actively address behavioral problems by using the results from the ACE study. A beautiful example of this was titled The Legend of Miss Kendra, which I personally believe should be utilized in every kindergarten and elementary school nationwide. Parents, recognize your own ACE score and how that could be affecting your parenting style, and make sure you are being that adequate adult care that your children need. When an adverse experience happens, be proactive in seeking out help.
Our brains are not fully developed until around age 25. That means the average student is still developing, and can still be affected by an adverse experience. Students, if you’re living in prolonged toxic stress, are in an unhealthy environment, or have experienced these things in the past, seek out adult support. It doesn’t have to be a parent – it could be a doctor, teacher, coach, friend’s parent, or faith leader. Do this not just because someone says you should, but do it to be proactive in the development of your own brain. Adverse childhood experiences do not need to define you so long as you actively seek out the support needed to get back on track.
For more information on ACEs, check out these resources: