Those who have experienced trauma during their childhood are more likely to suffer from poor health later in life, according to a new federal analysis.
These traumatic events experienced or witnessed during youth — otherwise known as adverse childhood experience (ACEs) — can include violence, mental health problems in the home, and substance misuse.
Childhood trauma’s link to severe health disparities
“The way that we view the world as adults is formed through the experiences that we have as children. We learn to understand the world through that which we see and learn from the world around us,” Tamar Blank, Psy.D, a Licensed Psychologist and founder of Riverdale Psychology tells Considerable.
That’s why when researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released the first analysis of its kind confirming how substantially trauma impedes human health, it was groundbreaking.
The researchers used 2015-2017 survey data for more than 144,000 adults from 25 states. Via their analyses, they found that 60.9% of adults reported at least one ACE, while 15.6% reported four or more types.
This childhood experience of trauma, according to the researchers, directly correlated with health risk behaviors, socioeconomic challenges, and poorer overall health outcomes. These outcomes often appear later in life and include alcoholism, depression, smoking, unemployment, and lower educational attainment.
All of these tangentially correlate with the five top causes of death in the U.S.: heart disease, cancer, respiratory diseases, diabetes and suicide, US News reported.
Why early trauma is associated with poor health outcomes
“There are some biological reasons that ACEs are associated with poor health outcomes,” Sarita Rogers, Deputy Director of Programs at the Children’s Trust tells Considerable.
“Children who are exposed to ACEs have elevated levels of stress hormones in their bodies over extended periods of time. That unrelieved activation of the body’s stress management system, also known as ‘toxic stress,’ has long-term negative consequences on both physical and mental health.”
Rogers also notes that there is some evidence through epigenetics studies that show trauma being passed down through generations.
How to prevent childhood trauma and it’s consequences
“It is important to remember that exposure to adverse experiences do not definitively lead to poor health outcomes,” says Rogers. “Positive experiences and supportive relationships can mitigate the effects of ACEs.”
So how is this implemented? According to the analysis, preventing traumatic childhood events could avert millions of cases of depression later in life, along with a myriad of other poor health outcomes among adults.
Firstly, Rogers stresses the importance of implementing protective factors in the lives of families in order to build safe, stable, nurturing relationships and environments for children.
“The Center for the Study of Social Policy developed the following protective factors: parental resilience, knowledge of parenting and child development, social connections, children’s social and emotional development, and concrete support in times of need,” explains Rogers.
“When in place, the protective factors serve as buffers that help families cope, achieve, and thrive, even during times of stress.”
Protective factors are cornerstones upon which to build healthy environments for children and families, and are invaluable resources for families and communities for trauma reduction.
These can be accessed through in-home parent coaching and parenting education with the help of state and community efforts.
Therapy’s role in coping with trauma
Though promoting positive parenting experiences helps to limit children’s exposure to ACEs and, in turn, decreases chances of long-term negative outcomes for both physical and mental health, this isn’t always possible.
In this case, Rogers says that it’s important to begin to address mental health and behavioral challenges as early as possible, to provide children and parents the support and resources they need to heal and develop positive coping skills.
Though therapy certainly isn’t accessible to everyone, the analysis notes that increased access to, and use of, comprehensive health services is paramount in effectively navigating and healing from trauma.