Preventing “toxic stress” in childhood could reduce chronic health conditions and risky behaviors later in life that are linked to at least half of the top 10 causes of death, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report released Tuesday.
A study that assessed survey responses of more than 140,000 adults in 2015 through 2017 across 25 states, including Illinois, showed that those who reported having the most Adverse Childhood Experiences, called ACEs, also had more chronic health conditions, like depression, smoking, drinking and socioeconomic struggles later in life — conditions linked to leading causes of death including heart disease, diabetes, cancer, respiratory conditions and suicide.
ACEs refers to criteria identified in a landmark 1998 study of the same name, and includes childhood abuse and neglect, witnessing domestic violence, substance abuse in the home and other dysfunction in childhood. The study linked these experiences to poor health conditions later in life, and debunked myths that children could be too young to be affected by hardship.
While public health advocates have known since then that these negative experiences early in life have long-term health consequences, Tuesday’s report marks the first estimation of how much prevention of ACEs can reverse negative health affects, having an impact on the overall health of the nation, said Dr. Anne Schuchat, CDC principal deputy director.
The report showed nearly 61% of respondents experienced at least one ACE, and more than 15%, or 1 in 6, were exposed to at least four. Research shows having multiple ACEs, or prolonged exposure to stress offers the greatest risk to kids, Schuchat said.
The report also showed more women, African Americans and American Indian/Alaskan Natives were affected by multiple ACEs.
An analysis in the report showed that if these ACEs were eliminated, there could be a reduction of up to 1.9 million cases of heart disease (the leading cause of death in the U.S.), up to 21 million cases of depression and up to 2.5 million cases of obesity, using 2017 data. Other estimations in the analysis included a potential reduction in depressive disorder, cancer and stroke, as well as risky behaviors like smoking, and socioeconomic challenges like unemployment.
The data highlights the importance of prevention, as well as intervention and supports for those already exposed, Schuchat said.
“The affects of ACEs adds up … and can limit their opportunities,” she said. “While it might not be possible to avoid every ACE, there are many opportunities to prevent ACEs from happening in the first place,” and to help those who need it.
That includes community- and government-based programs for families, as well as improved access to high quality child care and education, among other efforts, she said. “There’s a role for everyone.”