“I would argue,” says Dr. Michael Sharp of Plum Spring Clinic, “that the studies on the health impact of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) are the most important epidemiological studies ever done.”
The research he refers to—known as the ACEs studies—began with large-scale studies at Kaiser Permanente in the mid-1990s. These studies—corroborated repeatedly in the 25 years since—found a powerful link between childhood trauma and long-term physical health problems.
“Anyone in the healing arts has suspected that there is a connection between physical wellness and what we experience emotionally,” observes Dr. Sharp. “But these studies provide inescapable evidence of that connection. In fact, the data make clear that ACEs have a profound, negative impact on every aspect of life, from physical and mental health to education and career opportunities.”
ACEs (adverse childhood experiences), Dr. Sharp explains, include physical, sexual, and verbal abuse, physical and emotional neglect, as well as mental illness or substance abuse in a household member. Divorce and death of family members also have an impact.
“Over 60 percent of adults report that they have experienced at least one type of ACE,” he notes, “and nearly one in six has experienced four or more. And it’s that accumulation of trauma that takes a toll—contributing to development of serious chronic health problems in adulthood. These include not only mental health problems and substance abuse, but a wide range of physical problems. For example, experiencing four or more ACEs is associated with a significantly increased risk for leading adult causes of death, including heart disease, stroke, cancer, COPD, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, and suicide.”
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