The greater number of adverse childhood experiences a person has, the greater number of health risks they face in adulthood.
The American Heart Institute recently issued its first scientific statement linking Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) to obesity, high blood pressure, type-two diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
It defines adverse childhood experiences as anything that threatens a child’s body, family or social structure. Examples of ACEs include abuse, neglect, having a parent with mental health or addiction issues, being abandoned by a parent and having a family member incarcerated.
When a child is continually exposed to stress, the architecture of their brain can change. Their heart rate and cortisol levels can elevate, which puts them in a constant trauma induced, or flight or fight, state. This can change the body’s metabolism and contributes to internal inflammation, which increases the risk of developing diabetes and heart disease. While a child may not remember traumatic experiences, their bodies will.
To cope with trauma people often overeat, smoke and are inactive, all of which are linked to obesity and cardiovascular disease. Having suffered from childhood trauma also increases the risk of developing mood and anxiety disorders, which can lead to cardiometabolic disease.
Adverse Childhood Experiences are so prevalent that a study published in the Canadian Medical Association in 2014 found that one third of Canadians have experienced child abuse. While many people may have had one or two adverse childhood experiences, the greater the number of experiences, the greater the health risks.
New and expecting mothers who experienced childhood trauma are also at greater risk for developing pre and post-natal problems. A study published the in The Journal of Pediatrics in 2017 found that women who suffered adverse childhood experiences were more likely to have pregnancy problems, such as gestational diabetes and hypertension, as well as postpartum problems, such as depression. Furthermore, children of mothers who have experienced ACEs are also at greater risk of physical and mental health problems.
A pilot project in Alberta is using a questionnaire about childhood experiences to gage new mothers’ risks for developing health issues. There are ten questions and the higher the score, the higher the risk. Those who scored four or higher had 25 per cent greater health care costs than those who scored zero to three, found a study of more than 4,000 Albertans.
By identifying children and families suffering from trauma, abuse and extreme stress, doctors and family service professionals can intervene. They can connect families with counselling, parenting classes, food banks and other programs and services. They can also educate them about the importance of eating healthy, exercising, managing stress and maintaining strong stable parent-child (or primary caregiver) relationships, which is the greatest protective factor in helping children overcome adversity to reach their full potential.
Working with families to prevent childhood trauma as well as gaining a better understanding of the underlying factors linking it to pre and post-natal problems can reduce the risks to future generations.