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To Your Good Health: Adverse childhood events can influence health in adulthood

BY KEITH ROACH, M.D.

DEAR DR. ROACH: I’m a psychotherapist with an expertise in working with adults who experienced childhood trauma. I know that early trauma can lead to later mental health challenges and see this in my practice. The ACES (Adverse Childhood Experiences Study), conducted in the mid-’90s, reveals that trauma and other adverse experiences in childhood (abuse, neglect, parental abandonment and addictions, etc.) can lead to later chronic physical issues as well, such as heart disease and obesity. Will you please address how early trauma and chronic childhood stress affect our immune system and physical health later in life, and what steps people can take to optimize their health? — D.P.

ANSWER: The ACE Study showed that 67% of adults — volunteers from Kaiser Permanente from 1995-1997, average age 57 at the time — had at least one adverse event, e.g., abuse, neglect or household dysfunction, such as substance abuse or a mother who was treated violently. The more adverse events, the worse the outcomes in health and well-being. Adverse outcomes included cigarette smoking and obesity. These in turn increase the risk for heart disease and cancer. Other poor choices made by people with more childhood experiences included more unsafe sex practices leading to higher risk of HIV and other sexually transmitted infections. There was a higher risk of illicit and injection drugs and lower levels of recreational exercise.

The links to ill health go beyond poor lifestyle choices. There was an increased risk for depression and attempted suicide among those with more adverse experiences in childhood. The authors postulate that these traumas lead to social, emotional and cognitive impairment, which then lead to adopting bad behaviors as coping devices.

Two-thirds of adults have had adverse experiences in childhood as defined by the study. Everyone needs to work on making good choices, especially getting regular exercise, avoiding smoking and illicit drugs, as well as excess alcohol use; having meaningful relationships and practicing safer sex. People with more childhood trauma need to be aware of their increased risk for depression and seek attention for symptoms of depression quickly.

The other part of this is to stop the cycle of trauma by having children only when you are emotionally and financially ready, and for parents to seek help themselves if they are overwhelmed by the demands of a family and at risk for not taking the best care of their spouse and children.

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