Racism and the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study

In the late 1990s, a landmark study revealed a powerful relationship between serious, negative events in childhood and people’s physical and mental health in adulthood. Known as the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study and conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Kaiser Permanente, this study asked adult patients to disclose some potentially traumatic events that they may have experienced before the age of 18.

Researchers asked specifically about 10 experiences – events such as living with a family member with a mental illness or witnessing or experiencing violence – and then looked to see how the number of adverse childhood experiences tracked with a wide variety of adult health outcomes.

Some of what they found fit with what was already known: People who had experienced abuse or neglect as kids were more likely to have mental health problems as adults. But other findings were surprising, such as the realization that there was a clear, graded relationship between early adversity and physical health. One serious event in childhood seemed to have few or no observable long-term consequences. But multiple forms of adversity in childhood predicted multiple health problems in adulthood. For example, children who experienced four adverse experiences were twice as likely to be diagnosed with cancer than those who had no significant experiences of childhood trauma. The more adverse experiences people had in childhood, the more likely they were to be diagnosed with asthma.

Since the landmark study, scientists have learned more about how adversity “gets under the skin” and affects human biology. When children are exposed to chronic or severe adversity, stress systems can over-activate, flooding their developing bodies and brains with harmful levels of stress hormones. This “toxic stress response” increases the risk of later health problems.

Dr. Nadine Burke-Harris, MD, MPH, FAAP is an ACE researcher, physician, and California’s first (and current) Surgeon General. Dr. Burke recently discussed the connection between racism and ACE. While the original ACE Study did not account for stressors outside of the household, Dr. Nadine Burke Harris explains that a person’s exposure to racism and discrimination increases the risk for developing toxic stress and ACE-associated health conditions:

  1. Racism and resulting systemic inequities create conditions that lead to ACEs.
  2. Communities of color carry a higher burden of ACEs and are at greater risk of ACE-associated health conditions.
  3. Low-income communities and communities of color are disproportionately located in environments that have fewer resources for buffering care, such as access to fresh healthful foods, recreational facilities, greenspaces, and healthcare resources.
  4. Exposure to racism can act as a direct and chronic stressor, leading to prolonged activation of the body’s biological stress response.

Watch the webinar: Racism and Discrimination as Risk Factors for Toxic Stress

There is hope.

ACE researchers also discovered that children can tolerate severe stress if stable, responsive adult relationships are in place to buffer the negative impact. To nurture children’s potential, and to promote greater health and wellbeing, one of the most impactful things we can do is address ACEs. By adopting policies and practices that prevent most ACEs from occurring in the first place, researchers estimate that the nation could reduce depression by 44%, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) by 27%, and unemployment by 15%. There are also steps that states, communities, and organizations can take to support adults and children with a history of ACEs to reduce the long-term impact on health and wellbeing.

North Range’s Family Connects early childhood mental health team weaves social supports together to address and prevent ACEs by creating a net that catches caregivers when the waters get rough.

Family Connects:

  • Serves families/caregivers with children ages (0-6)
  • Helps families within their cultural framework
  • Serves all of Weld County
  • Provides trauma-informed support

Support can look like:

  • Community-based consultation and training
  • Home-visiting support programs
  • Caregiver social support groups
  • Outpatient therapy (family, perinatal, post-partum, group)
  • Trauma intervention
  • Psychoeducation
To learn more about support for family systems, call 970.347.2120 and ask for Family Connects.

For more information about Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), follow these links:
Video - How Childhood Trauma Affects Health Across a Lifetime
ACE Quiz (adversechildhoodexperiences.net)

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