Most of us are aware that biometric scores such as blood sugar, cholesterol levels and body mass are all key health indicators. Now there’s a new number to consider: Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACEs.
According to the U.S. Center for Disease Control, both positive and negative childhood experiences significantly impact adult wellness. Think in terms of being a victim of violence, committing violent acts or suffering from a physical or mental health condition. This makes ACEs an important public health issue that merits attention and action.
“We’ve always known, anecdotally, that childhood trauma has negative effects on an individual later in life,” says Christy Richards, public health educator at Ontario County Public Health. “But now we have quantitative data behind it.”
What are ACEs?
That quantitative data refers to a study commissioned by the CDC and implemented by Kaiser Permanente, a health care insurer. From 1995 to 1997, more than 17,000 of Kaiser Permanente Health Maintenance Organization members in Southern California who received physical exams completed confidential surveys regarding their childhood experiences, current health and behaviors.
The survey asked 10 yes or no questions measuring 10 types of childhood trauma experienced prior to one’s 18th birthday. Questions covered topics on various forms of abuse, neglect and household dysfunction. Five questions were personal — physical, verbal and sexual abuse, and physical and emotional neglect. Five were related to other family members — an alcoholic parent, a mother who’s a victim of domestic violence, incarcerated family member, mental illness and disappearance through death, divorce or abandonment.
One point was given for each “yes.” The results, published in 1998, found that positive and negative childhood experiences tremendously affected a person's future mental health. Since the initial study, other states have conducted their own ACE studies, contributing to the growing body of data.
What it Means to You
Today, you can take the ACEs questionnaire to gain a measurement of your own risk of health problems.
High ACEs scores are linked to risky health behaviors such as a sedentary lifestyle, smoking, drug abuse or missing many days of work; chronic health conditions such as obesity, Type 2 diabetes, pulmonary diseases, stroke, cancer, heart disease; and depression, low life potential and early death. As your ACEs score increases, so does your risk of disease, risky behaviors and social and emotional problems.
“To know your ACE score is to know your risk,” Richards says.
What You Can Do
A risk factor, like a high ACEs score, can increase your likelihood of developing a health condition, but it is not a guarantee. Richards says something else comes into consideration: resiliency. This is the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties.
In 2006, a group of childhood service providers, pediatricians, psychologists and health advocates of Healthy Start in Augusta, Maine, developed a 14-question survey designed to measure a person’s resiliency score. The purpose was focused on parenting education, but it was found that resiliency factors like asking for help, developing trusting relationships, a positive attitude and listening to one’s feelings can help improve a person’s life.
What does this mean for you?
“How we treat people matters,” Richards says. “Every interaction you have with a child is the potential to impact that child’s risk to chronic disease 20 years down the road. Foster care workers, volunteers for Boy Scouts, Big Brother/Big Sister, sports team coaches, community centers — these interactions matter.”
If you discover you have a high ACEs score, make sure to take action. Ontario County offers an Employee Assistance Program for its employees. Within the EAP are stress counselors, telephonic mental health counseling and face-to-face mental health counseling. All conversations are confidential. Counselors are available 24/7 at 1-800-252-4555.
For more information or to download a survey, visit CDC.gov/ViolencePrevention/ACEstudy/About.html.