What Are ACEs?

Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) harm children's developing brains. They lead to changing how children respond to stress and damaging their immune systems so profoundly that the effects show up decades later. ACEs cause much of our chronic disease burden, most mental illness, and are at the root of violence.

ACEs are strongly associated with high-risk health behaviors in adulthood, such as smoking, alcohol and drug abuse, promiscuity, and obesity; and with ill health, including depression, heart and lung disease, cancer, and decreased lifespan.

ACEs have a dose-response relationship with many health problems. That is, as the number of ACEs accumulates, the greater the health risks to the individual.

ACEs come from the CDC-Kaiser Adverse Childhood Experiences Study, a groundbreaking public health study that discovered that childhood trauma leads to the adult onset of chronic diseases, depression and other mental illness, violence and being a victim of violence, as well as financial and social problems.

The ACEs research measured:

  • Physical, sexual and verbal abuse.
  • Physical and emotional neglect.
  • Witnessing a mother being abused.
  • Having a family member in prison.
  • Losing a parent to separation, divorce or other reason.
  • Living with someone who is depressed, diagnosed with mental illness, or addicted.
  • Average ACE Scores vs Percent Population Gender Graph
    Two-thirds of Americans have one or more ACEs

    Why are ACEs significant?

    Each type of trauma counts as one ACE, no matter how many times it occurs. People with an ACE score of 4 are twice as likely to be smokers, seven times more likely to be alcoholic, and twelve times more likely to attempt suicide. People with an ACE score of 6 or higher are at risk of their lifespan being shortened by 20 years.

    The ACE Study revealed six main discoveries:

    1. ACEs are common; two-thirds of adults have at least one.
    2. ACEs don't occur alone. If you have one, there's an 87 percent chance that you have two or more.
    3. ACEs cause adult onset of chronic disease, such as cancer and heart disease, as well as mental illness, violence and being a victim of violence.
    4. The more ACEs you have, the greater your risk. Each type of trauma counts as one, no matter how many times it occurs. People with an ACE score of 4 are at twice the risk.
    5. ACEs are responsible for a big chunk of workplace absenteeism, and for costs in health care, emergency response, mental health and criminal justice. Childhood adversity contributes to most of our major chronic, mental, economic, and social issues.
    6. It doesn't matter which four ACEs a person has; the harmful consequences are the same. The brain cannot distinguish one type of toxic stress from another; it's all toxic stress with the same impact.

    SOURCE: Aces Too High: ACEs 101
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