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How childhood trauma affects adult health (and what you can do about it)

By Emilie Poplett | February 11, 2021 | 5 min read | Healthy Lifestyle, Health Conditions, Mental Health

Child plays with blocks on the floor

Your childhood trauma may be harming your health more than you think.

People who had difficult childhoods are at higher risk for many health complications later in life. We know this because of a groundbreaking study from the late 1990s. The study looked at adverse childhood experiences (or ACEs) and their impact on the brain and body. It found that the more ACEs someone faced before turning 18, the higher their risk for certain health challenges as adults.

ACEs—which include abuse, neglect and household dysfunction—are shockingly common. About two thirds of adults surveyed had at least one type of ACE. Nearly one in six had experienced four or more.

And the impact is staggering. The study found that people who experienced four or more ACEs are:

  • 460% more likely to be depressed
  • 12 times more likely to attempt suicide
  • 5 times more likely to develop heart disease
  • About 1.5 times more likely to be physically inactive and have severe obesity
  • More likely to develop adult diseases like cancer, chronic lung disease and liver disease

On average, the life expectancy for someone with an ACE score of four or more is 20 years shorter than someone who scored zero.

Learn more about ACEs from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But it’s not all bad news.

ACEs are preventable. Together we can create safe and nurturing communities that protect kids from ACEs. That’s why Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina invests in organizations that help parents, schools and communities support early childhood development.

And not all is lost for adults who have already experienced trauma, either. Your ACE score is not a life sentence. In a minute, we’ll talk about the antidotes to childhood trauma that can help you live a healthy life.

ACE consequences graphic connects ACEs with traumatic brain injury, depression/anxiety, unintended pregnancy, pregnancy complications, fetal death, HIV and STDs, cancer and diabetes, alcohol and drug abuse, unsafe sex, education, occupation, and income

What’s your ACE score?

You can take the ACE quiz for free online to get your score.

The ACE score is only a guideline to help you gauge your risk of health consequences. It’s important to note that the ACE quiz doesn’t ask about all types of childhood trauma. For example, racism, community violence and homelessness are not included. So the quiz won’t always give a full picture of the hardships someone has faced.

It’s also helpful to remember that everyone is different. The ACE study helps us look at big-picture trends, but each of us handles adversity differently. Positive experiences also help offset some of the more difficult experiences.

Why do ACE scores matter?

ACE scores are associated with at least 5 of the top 10 leading causes of death.

But if we can prevent ACEs, we can set the next generation up for physical, social and emotional success. We can even reduce the prevalence of depression by up to 44%, asthma by 14% and cancer by 6%.

There’s also a financial benefit to preventing ACEs. The CDC found that child abuse and neglect alone cost $124 billion over the life of the child. That includes more than $42,000 in health care costs.

It benefits everyone to raise awareness about ACEs and adopt programs that prevent them.

I have a high ACE score. What can I do about it?

If you experienced childhood stress and trauma, there is hope.

“There are people with high ACE scores who do remarkably well,” Jack Shonkoff, director of the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University told NPR.

One of the best antidotes to childhood trauma is safe and healthy relationships. Social support helps build resilience—the ability to bounce back from difficulty. You may have developed resilience as a kid, especially if you had close relationships with caring adults. If you had even one stable and committed relationship with an adult, it helps balance out negative outcomes from ACEs.

But even if you didn’t, you can build social support and resilience as an adult.

Studies show that having strong social support can reduce mortality. It can even lower your blood pressure!

Trauma-informed therapy can also help. If you’re searching for a therapist in North Carolina, our Find a Doctor tool can help. If you’re not a Blue Cross NC member, you can still use this tool to find a highly rated therapist. Under “browse by category,” choose “medical specialties.” Then choose “behavioral/mental health.” If you are a Healthy Blue member, use Healthy Blue’s Find a Doctor resource.

Building resilience is a life-long pursuit. It can help us live longer and healthier lives, and we can break the cycle of ACEs for our children and grandchildren.

Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina offers several decision support tools to aid you in making decisions around your health care experience. These tools are offered for your convenience and should be used only as reference tools. You should consult your own legal counsel, tax advisor or personal physician as applicable throughout your health care experience.