The trauma of childhood causes neurobiological changes regardless of the types of adverse circumstances. The Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACE Study) looked at how 10 types of childhood trauma affect long-term health. They include: physical, emotional and sexual abuse; physical and emotional neglect; living with a family member who’s addicted to alcohol or other substances, or who’s depressed or has other mental illnesses; experiencing parental divorce or separation; having a family member who’s incarcerated, and witnessing a mother being abused. Subsequent ACE surveys include racism, witnessing violence outside the home, bullying, losing a parent to deportation, living in an unsafe neighborhood, and involvement with the foster care system. Other types of childhood adversity can also include being homeless, living in a war zone, being an immigrant, moving many times, witnessing a sibling being abused, witnessing a father or other caregiver or extended family member being abused, involvement with the criminal justice system, attending a school that enforces a zero-tolerance discipline policy, etc.
The ACE Study is one of five parts of ACEs science, which also includes how toxic stress from ACEs damage children’s developing brains; how toxic stress from ACEs affects health; and how it can affect our genes and be passed from one generation to another (epigenetics); and resilience research, which shows the brain is plastic and the body wants to heal.
Unsatisfying or painful experiences of early childhood decisively affect the adult personality. Critical events include weaning, toilet training, resolution of the Oedipus complex, and the sudden separation from home to go to school.
In 1991, more than 10,000 boarding school children contacted an experimental helpline to complain of abuse, bullying and of the worry and distress of being away from home at a young age.
The ACE Study found that the higher someone’s ACE score – the more types of childhood adversity a person experienced – the higher their risk of chronic disease, mental illness, violence, being a victim of violence and a number of other consequences. The study found that most people (64%) have at least one ACE; 12% of the population has an ACE score of 4. For example an ACE score of 4 could include divorce, physical abuse, an incarcerated family member and a depressed family member and has the same statistical health consequences as an ACE score of 4 that includes living with an alcoholic, verbal abuse, emotional neglect and physical neglect. Having an ACE score of 4 nearly doubles the risk of heart disease and cancer. It increases the likelihood of becoming an alcoholic by 700 percent and the risk of attempted suicide by 1200 percent. High ACE scores also relate to addiction: Compared with people who have zero ACEs, people with ACE scores are two to four times more likely to use alcohol or other drugs and to start using drugs at an earlier age. People with an ACE score of 5 or higher are seven to 10 times more likely to use illegal drugs, to report addiction and to inject illegal drugs.
Other studies have shown that people who’ve experienced childhood trauma have more chronic pain and use more prescription drugs; people who experienced five or more traumatic events are three times more likely to misuse prescription pain medications.