Protecting children from trauma could, in turn, reduce their risks or five out of 10 leading causes of death in the US, federal officials said on Tuesday.
A first-of-its-kind Center for Disease Control and Prevention report found that 61 percent of American adults lived through at least one adverse childhood experience (ACE), which could include anything from their parents' divorcing or sexual abuse.
And those who experienced the greatest number of traumatic events were the highest risks of developing chronic health problems as well as becoming heavy smokers or drinkers, developing depression, and struggling financially.
Scientists have now established that traumatic experiences cause biological changes, and the CDC estimates that prevent these events could prevent some 21 million cases of depression, 1.9 million cases of heart disease and keep 2.5 million Americans from becoming overweight or obese.
Over 60 percent of American adults experienced at least one traumatic event as a child, and preventing those could cut rates of depression, heart disease and obesity by millions of cases, a first-of-its-child CDC report estimates
"We now know that adverse childhood experiences have a significant impact on an individual's future health," said CDC director Dr. Robert Redfield in a statement accompanying the report.
'Preventing traumatic experiences in childhood and initiating key interventions when they do occur will classes long-term health consequences and benefit the physical and emotional well-being of individuals into adulthood.'
Depression is a leading cause of disability, but the number of people suffering it could be cut nearly in half – by 44 percent – if ACEs didn't happen.
If, in 2017, no adults had been through childhood trauma, 13 percent fewer would have been suffering from heart disease, the CDC estimates.
The effects for obesity are thought to be more modest, reducing the conditions by just two percent in 2017, but still accounts for 2.5 million fewer people who would have been overweight or obese.
ACEs also affect different groups in the US at very different rates.
It was more than twice common for a Native American or Alaskan Native to have lived through four or more childhood traumas as it was for a white person to have lived through as many.
Compared to 15 percent of white Americans, 17.7 percent of black Americans had four or more traumatic events as children.
Similarly, 23 percent more women had four or more traumatic experiences before they were 18.
And trauma, as research has recently taught us, is not just a bad memory, but a physical stress that has lasting and damaging consequences for our health.
Science has tapped into 'biomarkers,' which are not only traces of but changes rendered by our experiences.
There's no denying: trauma and stress trigger are literally written in our cells, triggering biological changes that can persist and wreak havoc through our whole lives.
Stress triggers the release of certain hormones – cortisol and adrenaline – that are useful in a fight-or-flight scenario.
But if a person is living at persistent, high level of stress, the hormones can turn against us, wreaking havoc by causing inflammation and tampering with DNA.
A child's brain and body are still developing, meaning they are even more vulnerable to more disastrous effects when left swimming in a sea of hormonal stress.
Even if they don't develop post-traumatic stress disorder, the child is left with an even quieter child or scar: epigenetic changes.
Signs of stress-derived epigenetic changes raise risks for problems with their broader hormonal system, metabolism, fertility, brain and behavior, immune system and heart.
The concept of ACEs arises from a study conducted by assessing subjects recruited as children between 1995 and 1997, by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and California's Kaiser Permanent health system.
Researchers re-assess these individuals regularly and its most recent data suggests that 62 percent of the now adults have experienced at least one ACE.
About 15 percent of the population goes through four or more such experiences, putting them on double the risk of heart disease, cancer and stroke, three times the risk of chronic respiratory disease and 1.5 times the risk of diabetes in adulthood.
The havoc trauma wreaks on the brain raises the risk of Alzheimer's disease by over 11-fold.
And these people's risks for suicide are a staggering 30-fold higher.
In childhood, rates of asthma, obesity, sleep disorders, substance abuse, learning or attention disorders, teen pregnancy, STIs, and mental health and behavioral issues are higher among children who have lived through trauma.
California Surgeon General, Dr. Nadine Burke Harris, argues that one of those problems, ADHD which many experts believe has been far over-diagnosed in the US, may often be more of a symptom of adversity than a health outcome.
She has spearheaded efforts to make addressing ACEs a top priority in the state's classrooms, hospitals and homes.
"When we talk about the effect of ACEs on learning, part of the impact is on the child's ability to sit still in class and … be able to receive and process information," Dr Burke Harris said.
'One thing that tipped me off was the number of kids being sent to me by schools – principals, teachers and administrators – with ADHD.
"What I found was that many of the kids were experiencing signs of adversity, and there seemed to be a strong association between adversity and the trauma they experienced and school functioning."
Signs of trauma manifest in very different ways in children than adults.
For example, while some children may seem hyperactive, others may seem constantly fatigued – but behaviors may well be indicators that all is not well at home.
Children also are more apt to complain or physical symptoms like upset stomachs when they are under undo stress.
The CDC echoes Dr. Burke-Harris's desires to make educators and physicians more aware of ACEs and their signs as well as introducing support programs like flexible work schedules that could allow families to better cope with and address stressors at home.
- For confidential help, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or click here
- For confidential support on suicide matters in the UK, call the Samaritans on 08457 90 90 90, visit a local Samaritans branch or click here
- For confidential support in Australia, please call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or click here
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