Research shows that the adversity we experience as children can affect us into adulthood. Challenges children face in school, life – and ultimately with their health – are often the symptoms of ACEs and toxic stress.
The good news is, the earlier we can identify that a child is experiencing ACEs and toxic stress, the sooner children and families can be connected to the services they need to prevent or heal the effects.
The term “Adverse Childhood Experiences,” or “ACEs,” comes from the 1998 Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACE Study). The study, a partnership between Kaiser Permanente and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), is one of the largest investigations ever conducted to assess connections between chronic stress caused by early adversity and long-term health.
The study examined exposure to childhood adversity, including abuse and neglect, and household dysfunction like domestic violence, parental mental illness, or parental substance abuse. Researchers assigned an “ACE score” to each participant by adding up the number of adversities the participant reported.
had four or more ACEs
Risk for heart disease or lung cancer with high ACE score.
Difference in life expectancy for children left untreated for high ACE score
Exposure to intense, frequent, or sustained stress without the buffering care of a supportive adult, can change children’s brains and bodies, including disrupting learning, behavior, immunity, growth, hormonal systems, immune systems, and even the way DNA is read and transcribed.
Disruption to the developing brain, including changes to the hippocampus, prefrontal cortex and amygdala, may lead to an increase in risk of cognitive impairment, attention deficits, learning disabilities, hyperactivity, self-regulation, memory and attention, and anxiety.
Toxic stress can increase a person's risk of developing high blood pressure, elevating levels of inflammation that can damage the arteries. These conditions can lead to heart disease, stroke and other serious health issues later in life.
Higher risk of infection and autoimmune disease may occur due to chronic inflammation and other factors, which cause changes in the body’s natural immune defense responses.
Toxic stress can impact growth and development. It can also lead to obesity and changes in the timing of puberty, as well as other issues.
The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study. Felitti VJ(1), Anda RF, Nordenberg D, Williamson DF, Spitz AM, Edwards V, Koss MP, Marks JS.
Dr. Nadine Burke Harris Adverse childhood experiences TED talk
Paul Tough, 2012
California Health Report, April 9, 2013
CYW White Paper on Toxic Stress, June 2013
San Francisco Magazine, September 30, 2013
CYW Data Report in partnership with Public Health Institute, November 6, 2014. IMPORTANT: Please see our Errata on page 2 that corrects a statistic on the association between ACEs and Alzheimer's as well as a clarification about the authorship of the report.
The New Yorker, March 21, 2011
Center for Youth Wellness is not a crisis center. Those experiencing urgent medical or psychiatric concerns should dial 911 or their local emergency agency for assistance. We are unable to respond to messages requesting referrals, treatment or clinical consultations from individuals who are not our patients.