The Impact of Childhood Experiences on Health Years Later

Experts are measuring the negative impact of adverse childhood experiences on adults and the results are staggering.
Dr. Lisa Albuja of the Center for Psychiatric Trauma and Mental Health and Saige Small, MHTC Coordinator for The Guidance Center
Dr. Lisa Albuja of the Center for Psychiatric Trauma and Mental Health and Saige Small, MHTC Coordinator for The Guidance CenterKendall Bruce

Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACEs, are potentially traumatic events that occur between the ages of 0 and 17. There are 10 experiences that have been identified and can be measured with a simple quiz. Based on how many apply to an individual, they are given an ACEs score.

According to Dr. Lisa Albuja of the Center for Psychiatric Trauma and Mental Health, the average score is 4 and that is where statistics really start to show the serious impact of these experiences.

A person with a score of 4 is 390% more likely to have chronic pulmonary lung disease, 240% more likely to have hepatitis, 460% more likely to be diagnosed with depression, and 1,220% more likely to commit suicide.

"The impact is cumulative," says Dr Albuja. "The percentages climb to grim and astounding levels as that ACE score increases."

A person with an ACE score of 6, for example, is 4,600% increase in their likelihood of becoming an IV drug user. Statistics like this lead Dr. Albuja believe that the origin of addiction is adverse childhood experiences.

The origin of addiction is adverse childhood experiences. I absolutely believe it.
Dr. Lisa Albuja, Center for Psychiatric Trauma and Mental Health

With such grim statistics, is there any hope for children who experience trauma to become healthy adults?

Absolutely, thanks to what Dr. Albuja and Saige Small of The Guidance Center refer to as "resiliency."

Resiliency is the ability to overcome traumatic events.

"Bad things happen to good people all the time," Dr. Albuja attests.

Someone who has a higher resiliency, however, can still have good outcomes for their physical, mental, and social health despite whatever they experienced in their adolescence.

So, how does a person develop resiliency? Dr. Albuja gives a list of examples, beginning with the family system. Having a healthy family can provide a protective structure for a child who experiences trauma.

Other protective structures include school, extracurricular activities, feeling good about yourself, non-parent adults who genuinely care about the child, any kind of positive adult-child relationship, and the educational and supportive work that Restore Hope and 100 Families are doing.

Factors like these can make a long-lasting difference in the life of a child.

However, for many of the adults that Dr. Albuja and Small work with today, they have already experienced childhood trauma and are already feeling the negative results of their ACEs score. For these, Small says they have to put in the work to overcome these variables, but more than that, they have the lived experience to understand the need and to be a protective structure for someone else.

"Be the adult you needed as a child," Small challenges. It is easy to become discouraged by the statistics, but by focusing on the things we can do to improve outcomes for families, we can build a better future.

Smart Justice is a magazine, podcast, and continuing news coverage from the nonprofit Restore Hope and covers the pursuit of better outcomes on justice system-related issues, such as child welfare, incarceration, and juvenile justice. Our coverage is solutions-oriented, focusing on the innovative ways in which communities are solving issues and the lessons that have been learned as a result of successes and challenges. 

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