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  • Writer's pictureRebecca Bryan

What are ACEs Anyway?

Updated: Oct 9, 2019

ACEs = Adverse Childhood Experiences

Have you heard them mentioned recently? Like on NPR, or by the presidential candidates? Everyone is talking about childhood trauma these days but what counts as trauma? Essentially, ACEs are bad things that happen to kids from 0-18 years - experiences that overwhelm coping mechanisms, cause terror, and are inescapable. A failed exam is not a trauma, though it can feel that way to a teen...but seeing domestic violence is. The term "ACEs" comes from the ACE study done in the late 1990s, which screened over 17,000 mostly white, mostly college-educated adults for 10 types of childhood adversity: physical, emotional, or sexual abuse; physical or emotional neglect; and household dysfunction including having a battered mother, living with someone with substance abuse, mental illness or incarceration, and losing a parent to separation or divorce. For each "yes" you get a score of 1 for a max of 10. The ACE study showed that trauma was incredibly common - 2/3rds of participants had 1, 40% had 2, and 12.5% had 4 or more. And they were cumulative - if you said yes to 1, there was an 87% chance you'd say yes to more.

But that's not all the ACE study showed - it also demonstrated a graded relationship between a person's ACE score and their risk for developing many of the leading causes of death in the U.S. - like heart disease, any cancer, lung disease, and suicide. These relationships persisted even when researchers controlled for things like age and unhealthy behaviors. ACEs do also increase the risk of unhealthy behaviors like substance abuse (think of the opioid epidemic!), disordered eating, and high-risk sex behaviors.

The ACE study was repeated last year for the 20th anniversary of the first one: this time it was with 200,000 diverse participants from 23 different states, and the results have been consistent, while showing that people growing up in poverty (as well as other social determinants) are at higher risk for experiencing ACEs.

This can be really depressing to read. But, as Nadine Burke Harris likes to say, "Childhood adversity has been around since God was a boy. This knowledge lets us figure out what to do about it!" The human spirit is resilient, and we can heal from the lingering effects of ACEs. I'll be blogging about that too - so stay tuned! And may it be well with your soul.

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