The Science Linking Childhood Trauma and Adult Health Problems

You may suspect that your childhood continues to impact your emotional health as an adult. You may notice certain patterns in the way you perceive yourself or the ways that you expect others to treat you. Maybe you recognize that you have adapted some of your parents' or caregivers' unhealthy ways of coping with stress, sadness, or anger, such as by repressing your emotions or exploding at others. These are important emotional health issues that deserve attention and support to resolve.

However, you may be surprised to learn that having had a difficult childhood may also impact your physical health in important ways.

The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) questionnaire was developed to measure the number of difficult childhood experiences individuals have had. It examines ten different types of childhood trauma:

  • Emotional abuse

  • Physical abuse

  • Sexual abuse

  • Emotional neglect

  • Physical neglect

  • Parents' separation or divorce

  • Witnessing domestic violence

  • Living with someone with a substance abuse problem

  • Living with someone with a mental illness

  • Living with someone who was imprisoned

From 1995 to 1997, Kaiser Permanente and the CDC conducted a study exploring the relationship between the number of ACEs experienced and various risky health behaviors and health problems. More than 17,000 people in Southern California completed the ACEs questionnaire and had their health and health behaviors examined.

 The researchers found that the more ACEs someone had experienced, the more likely they were to engage in risky health behaviors and have major health problems. This study has since been repeated numerous times across the country and the results have been supported again and again.

ACEs were found to be linked to risky health behaviors, such as:

  • Physical inactivity

  • Alcohol abuse

  • Drug abuse

  • Smoking

  • Overeating

  • Risky sexual behavior

Given that these ACEs were linked to risky health behaviors, it makes sense that the study also found that people with more ACEs were more likely to experience:

  • Heart disease

  • Cancer

  • STDs

  • Liver disease

  • Chronic lung disease, such as bronchitis and emphysema

People with higher rates of ACEs were also more likely to be depressed and have made a suicide attempt.

Source: https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/acestudy/ACE_graphics.html

Source: https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/acestudy/ACE_graphics.html

So why is there a connection between childhood trauma and physical health in adulthood?

The researchers theorized that the risky health behaviors may be used to cope with the emotional difficulty of having had a painful childhood. For example, they found that having people with a higher number of ACEs were more likely to begin smoking cigarettes by age 14 that people who has lower ACEs scores. Smoking earlier in life increases the likelihood of smoking into adulthood and later developing smoking-related diseases.

More recent research also suggests that childhood trauma may impact brain development. As a result, some people who experienced ACEs may also experience:

  • Impaired learning ability

  • Lower social and emotional skills

  • Language development problems

  • Hyperactivity

  • Sleep disturbances

These neurological conditions can increase the difficulty of maintaining good physical health.

From my clinical experience, I would also add that some people who have had traumatic childhoods may be less invested in their physical well being or more afraid of being physically intruded on by doctors. As a result, they may be less likely to receive physicals and have health problems caught before they become more serious.

So what can be done about this?

Being aware of your risk for engaging in risky health behaviors is important. Take the ACEs questionnaire and talk about it with your medical doctor and therapist.

Work with your doctor and therapist to find healthier, more effective ways of coping with difficult emotions, as well as working to resolve the old emotional pains you currently experience.

Reach out if you would like to further discuss how your childhood may be continuing to affect you today.