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How Childhood Trauma Affects Health Outcomes

What if I told you that there was a discovery of exposure that dramatically increased the risk for 7 out of 10 of the leading causes of death in the U.S.? Would you know what this exposure was?

In high doses, it affects brain development, immune function, the hormonal system, and even the way our DNA is read and transcribed. And exposure can lead to a 20-year difference in life expectancy.

This exposure is childhood trauma.

Childhood trauma isn’t something you just get over as you grow up. Pediatrician Nadine Burke Harris explains that the repeated stress of abuse, neglect, and parents struggling with mental health or substance abuse issues has real, tangible effects on the development of the brain.

The Adverse Childhood Experience Study looked at 17,500 adults about their history of exposure to adverse childhood experiences (ACE's). These include: 

  • Physical, emotional and sexual abuse
  • Physical and emotional neglect 
  • Parental mental illness
  • Substance dependence 
  • Incarceration
  • Parental separation or divorce
  • Domestic violence

For every "yes" to these questions, you get a point on your ACE score. They correlated these ACE scores against health outcomes. They found that ACE scores are incredibly common with 67% of the population having at least one ACE, and 12.6% (1 in 8) having four or more.

They also found that there was a dose-response relationship between ACE's and health outcomes. The higher your ACE score, the worse your health outcomes. 

Exposure to trauma affects the developing brains and bodies of children by 

  • Influencing the pleasure and reward system of the brain
  • Inhibiting the prefrontal cortex necessary for learning
  • Changing the amygdala, the body's fear-response system

Children are especially receptive to this stress activation because their brains and body are just developing. 

Adverse childhood trauma is the single greatest unaddressed public health threat facing our nation today. In this lies hope. When we recognize it to be a public health crisis, then we can use the right toolkit to come up with solutions. 

Nadine poses the question, Why haven't we taken this more seriously? Is it because it doesn't apply to us? 

And what she has found is that we marginalize the issue because it does apply to us. 

This is a movement. And we are part of that movement.