AMES, Iowa – Adverse childhood experiences, often referred to as ACEs, are potentially traumatic events that can have negative, lasting effects on health and well-being. These experiences range from physical, emotional or sexual abuse to parental divorce or the incarceration of a parent or guardian, an Iowa State University Extension and Outreach specialist says.
“Adverse childhood experiences do not guarantee bad outcomes for adults but they increase the odds of struggle and they are largely preventable,” according to Malisa Rader, an ISU Extension and Outreach human sciences specialist in family life.
The national ACE study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention examined the relationship between adverse childhood experiences and later health and behavior outcomes. It was the largest study looking at short- and long-term impacts of cumulative childhood trauma ever done. The most commonly reported ACEs were substance abuse in the household and physical abuse.
According to a study analyzed by Iowa State University, “Adverse childhood experiences in Iowa: A new way of understanding lifelong health,” 55 percent of adult Iowans experience at least one instance of childhood abuse or household dysfunction before the age of 18.
“Research shows that the higher someone’s ACE score, the more health and social problems he or she seems to experience as an adult,” Rader said. “This is the first time science has been able to correlate some of our major health issues to incidents in childhood. Ongoing research by the CDC finds that worse case trauma in childhood could take as many as 20 years off life expectancy.”
The accumulation of ACE also appears to be higher in those seeking social services. Between 21 and 67 percent of behavioral and physical health problems that cause people to seek social services are attributable to ACEs.
“Childhood experiences can have a huge impact on who we become as adults if issues are not addressed and other protective factors are not present," Rader said. "Of course, not every adult with a history of ACEs will have poor outcomes, but many will experience some problems, and some will experience serious difficulties."
These are some of society’s most costly issues. Reducing ACEs in a community has the potential to significantly lower the cost of health care and social services, Rader added.
Fortunately, there are real ways to reduce ACEs and their effect, Rader said. The most effective prevention is to lower young children’s exposure to extremely stressful conditions, but research shows that even under stressful conditions, supportive, responsive relationships with caring adults as early in life as possible can prevent or reverse the damaging effects of adverse childhood experiences.
A study published in the British Journal of Psychology looked at children from low-income neighborhoods and found that youth with just one solid, supportive friendship tended to show signs of greater resilience when facing adversity than did children with lower-quality friendships, Rader noted.
Movements within mental health, primary health care, education and other fields are shifting focus from a “what is wrong with you” approach to a “what happened to you” approach, Rader said. This method recognizes the presence of trauma symptoms and acknowledges the role trauma has played in someone’s life.
Helping parents have the knowledge, resources and support they need to provide safe, stable, nurturing and healthy environments for their children reduces the likelihood of abuse and neglect. Human service agencies should focus on working with families to manage stress, strengthen connections, access resources and gain parenting skills.
“We need to recognize that people often have many different types of trauma in their lives. And those who have been traumatized need support and understanding from those around them,” Rader shared.