Experiences shape our brains. A landmark
American study in the 1990s found that
the more adverse childhood experiences
(ACEs) a person has, the higher the risk
later in life of health and social problems.
Dr. Rob Anda, a co-investigator of the
study, and now with ACE Interface, calls
ACEs “a pathway to disease.”
A recent study by the Alberta Centre
for Child, Family and Community
Research grouped ACEs into three
categories: abuse, neglect and family
dysfunction before the age of 18.
The effect of childhood adversitydepends on the support and carechildren have from adults. When anadult helps a child in a sensitive way,adversity may have no effect at all.For example, a preschooler may getupset when his parents argue, but theiroccasional disagreements probablywon’t have any permanent effect on hisbrain, especially if he sees them makeup. On the other hand, if his parents areconstantly and bitterly fighting aboutmoney and ignoring him, these areexamples of ACEs that can lead to brain-altering toxic stress.
Growing up, we all need to experiencepositive and tolerable stress. These typesof stress help us learn how to cope withlife’s ups and downs. But when stressbecomes toxic because of abuse, neglectand family dysfunction, it becomesharmful to young brains. And whentoxic stress changes brain architecture,children and young adults have a hardertime reaching their potential and can facea number of problems as adults.
People with three ACEs or more are
more likely to use drugs at an early
age, have a teenage pregnancy, develop
a drug or alcohol addiction, or marry
someone with an alcohol addiction.
They are also more likely to have alifetime history of depression or toattempt suicide. Liver disease, heartdisease, stroke, diabetes, chronic lungdisease, chronic pain and inflammatoryconditions such as asthma and irritablebowel syndrome are also linked to ACEs.
Examples of adverse childhoodexperiences:
• An adult in a child’s home makesverbal insults or threats
• An adult physically abuses (injuresor bruises) a child in their home
• An adult or someone five or moreyears older makes inappropriatesexual advances toward, or hassexual contact with a child
• A child sees her mother orstepmother being treated violently(pushed, grabbed, slapped, hadsomething thrown at her, kicked,bitten, hit)
• Someone in a child’s homeabuses alcohol or drugs, isdepressed or mentally ill, or hasa disability that limits or interfereswith daily activities
• A child is often bullied
• A child often feels unloved, afraidand isolated
• A child’s parents separate ordivorce.
ACEs affect children in differentways and many children withmultiple ACEs grow into adults withno ongoing health problems. ACEsare common, says psychologistKeith Dobson of the University ofCalgary and the Alberta embrACEproject. About 70 per cent of
Albertans have had at least one.To learn more about ACEs:
• Visit acestudy.org
• Visit cdc.gov/violenceprevention/acestudy
• Call Health Link at 811
• Call the Mental Health Help Lineat 1-877-303-2642.
Understanding youradverse childhoodexperiences may help youunderstand your past—and your health
While it is clearly better to prevent and
avoid ACEs, Anda says when people
know their ACE score—become trauma-
informed—it can give them a chance to
write a different narrative about their
lives and to “create a different path for
the future . . . with hope, meaning and
“It’s not what’s wrong with you,” he
says. “It’s what happened to you.”
health. |a P h o