How Childhood Trauma Affects Health Across a Lifetime

How Does Childhood Trauma Affect a Person’s Health Across Their Lifetime?

I recently heard a TedTalk given by Dr. Nadine Burke Harris that talks about how childhood trauma affects a person’s health across a lifetime. Even though I have written about this before, hearing it again still shocked me. Here are some of the alarming statistics she shared. Children exposed to high doses of trauma will have:

  • 2.5 times the likelihood of contracting heart disease, lung disease and hepatitis,
  • 4.5 times the likelihood of chronic depression,
  • 12 times the likelihood of suicidality, and
  • a 20-year shorter life expectancy. 

What kind of trauma is she talking about? She is not talking about the normal things all kids experience, like failing a test, or losing a friend. No, she is talking about physical, emotional or sexual abuse, physical or emotional neglect, or being raised by a parent who has a serious mental health disorder or who is addicted to drugs or alcohol, parents who are incarcerated, or witnessing domestic violence in the home.

Where does Dr. Burke get her statistics? She gets them from the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study performed by Kaiser Permanente in conjunction with the Centers for Disease Control. They asked over 17,000 adults about their exposure to trauma as children. Surprisingly, 67% of these adults had at least one adverse childhood experience (ACE). One in 8 adults had experienced four or more ACEs.

What do these alarming statistics mean? Doesn’t this just indicate that children with a rough childhood will make poor decisions and take poor care of their health? Won’t they be more likely to smoke, drink, use drugs, etc.? Yes, this is true, but WHY? Childhood trauma actually changes a person’s brain. There are real, neurological reasons why people with high ACEs will engage in high risk behavior.

Interestingly, even if these adults DO NOT engage in high risk behavior, their chance of heart disease or cancer is STILL higher than those who did not have any ACEs. Tweet This

How can this be? The natural fight or flight response that all people are born with helps us run from a bear in the woods and can save our lives. The problem is, for children living with chronic abuse or neglect, this fear response gets activated over and over again. This changes the shape of their brains, their hormonal system, and even their DNA.

What Can Be Done?

Dr. Burke and her team began screening their patients for ACEs, and rather than just treating the symptoms, actually tried to prevent further adverse experiences by using:

  • home visits
  • mental health care
  • nutrition
  • medication when necessary, but mostly they
  • education for the parents on the harmfulness of exposing their kids to this type of trauma.

This seemed an obvious clinical protocol that all hospitals, clinics and doctors would want to take. Screen for ACEs, then treat them. She was saddened to learn that this was not as obvious to others as it was to her and her team. She realized to make these changes would take “a movement.” Dr. Burke quotes Dr. Robert Block, the former president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, as saying, “Adverse Childhood Experiences are the single greatest unaddressed public health threat facing our nation today.” Hearing that can make this problem seem overwhelming. How can we possibly address it? Dr. Burke actually is encouraged by the enormity of the task. She points out that Americans have a good track record treating public health issues. She remarks that we as a nation have tackled the public health issues of tobacco use, lead poisoning and HIV/AIDS. Dealing with childhood trauma as a nation will take similar determination and commitment.

The ACE study has been available for 20 years. Dr. Burke wonders why our nation has not taken it more seriously? She thinks it could be because we don’t want to look at a problem that so many of us deal with. We would rather be sick than to look under this rock. She points out that the science is so compelling that (hopefully soon) our country will have to address this, if only because medically treating this high number of people will become too costly. She says,

“This is real, this is all of us. We are the movement.”  Tweet This

What Can YOU Do?

Many of you who are reading this are adults that have experienced multiple ACEs in your childhood. What can you do? Dr. Burke does not address this issue in her talk. From my (Caroline’s) perspective, knowing that your childhood trauma can affect your health and even your lifespan, can encourage you to get as healthy as possible. As a counselor myself, I highly recommend getting counseling with someone trained in counseling those with complex trauma. A good counselor can walk with you as you delve into the trauma you have had, to try to ameliorate its effects on your thinking and your life. You would also want to take care of your physical health, eating and sleeping well, getting regular exercise. If you are surrounded by toxic people, limiting your exposure to them will be to your advantage. (Note: if you are currently experiencing intimate partner (domestic) violence, I highly recommend talking to a DV advocate. Click here to find one. Ask them to help you come up with a plan to remain safe whether you stay or leave.)

If you are a parent of a child who has experienced trauma,

  1. Limiting the child’s future exposure to trauma is your first order of business. One of the best things a parent can do is have a healthy relationship with their child, and give them as safe an environment as possible. 
  2. Another is to become healthy yourself (see above).
  3. Dr. Robert Block encourages parents, teachers, extended family to help a child learn resiliency

I will be talking more about this in upcoming blogs. Reading blogs like this one can make us anxious and fearful. If that is how you are feeling right now, remember that you are not alone. There are many people available to help you. Also, God is always with you. Isaiah 41:10 says:

So do not fear, for I am with you;
    do not be dismayed, for I am your God.
I will strengthen you and help you;
    I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.

Question: Have you experienced Adverse Child Experiences, or have your children?

I pray this information, rather than causing you anxiety will help you realize you are not alone, and will encourage you to seek help.

Bless you,




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