Did you experience a traumatic childhood and are now battling a chronic disease? That’s no coincidence. According to the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study, abuse and/or neglect in childhood plays a strong role in the development of autoimmune and other chronic diseases.
What is the ACE Study?
The ACE Study is a collaborative effort between the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Kaiser Permanente’s Health Appraisal Clinic in San Diego. It is one of the largest assessments ever done on the correlation between childhood mistreatment and chronic health problems in adulthood.
The study was conducted on more than 17,000 Health Maintenance Organization (HMO) members between the years of 1995 and 1997. The demographic consisted mostly of white, middle to upper-middle class, college-educated individuals with good jobs.
The data resulting from this initial study continues to be analyzed, and, time and time again, reveals overwhelming proof of the health, social, and economic risks of childhood trauma.
Childhood Trauma Weakens the Architecture of the Developing Brain
“It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” – Frederick Douglass
This is one of my favorite quotes because it’s literally true. If you’re exposed to repeated traumatic experiences while your brain is still developing, it will weaken its architecture, which can result in lifelong learning, mental, behavior, and physical health problems.
“It is easier and less costly to form strong brain circuits during the early years than it is to intervene or “fix” them later. Brains never stop developing—it is never too late to build new neural circuits—but in establishing a strong foundation for brain architecture, earlier is better.”
So, if you’ve ever been told your chronic illness is “all in your head”, it’s partially true. You’re not making it up, but your brain is wired differently from someone who has not experienced prolonged trauma.
When the stress response is activated, physiological reactions prepare the body to deal with an immediate threat. Children who go through this type of stress response once in the while and as the result of typical childhood experience (breaking a bone, having an illness, or getting lost) will usually recover quickly and their stress levels will return to baseline. This is especially true if the child receives continual nurturing and support after these events occur.
The same is not true for children who experience or witness continual traumatic events. When the stress response is repeatedly activated over long periods of time, especially without any supportive relationships to counteract it, the stress turns “toxic” and has a profoundly negative effect on brain development.
“Early experiences affect the development of brain architecture, which provides the foundation for all future learning, behavior, and health. Just as a weak foundation compromises the quality and strength of a house, adverse experiences early in life can impair brain architecture, with negative effects lasting into adulthood.”
Diseases Associated with Childhood Trauma
The list of diseases and conditions associated with childhood trauma is almost exhaustive. Mental health disorders, addictions, and a tendency toward violent relationships (either as the aggressor or the victim) run rampant in those who have a high ACE score. For this piece, however, I’ll only focus on chronic disease.
- Heart Disease
According to a study conducted by the American Heart Association, nine out of 10 of the ACEs increased the risk of ischemic heart disease up to 1.7 fold. Psychological factors appeared to be even more influential in the development of IHD than traditional risk factors such as smoking, sedentary lifestyle, obesity, diabetes, and high blood pressure.
A study comparing a control group with medically-explainable chronic pain, a group with somatoform pain disorders, and a group with fibromyalgia, revealed that fibromyalgia patients presented with the highest score of childhood adversities.
Although fibromyalgia patients reported physical and sexual abuse, they more frequently reported a lack of physical affection, alcohol or other addiction problems in the mother, a poor emotional relationship with both parents, and a poor financial situation before the age of seven.
- Other Chronic Pain Conditions
Research has shown that individuals with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) have the highest likelihood of a chronic medical condition. Chronic pain conditions have been significantly associated with physical abuse, education, and age at which the trauma occurred.
These findings appeared to be unrelated to other aggravating factors such as mental illness, sexual abuse (with or without physical abuse as a component), or low income. Research continues to prove that multiple traumatic experiences can have a cumulative effect of physical health.
Research continues to prove that multiple traumatic experiences can have a cumulative effect of physical health.
- Autoimmune Disease
A study published in Psychosomatic Medicine noted that first hospitalizations for autoimmune disease increased with a high ACE score. This particular study was the first of its kind to demonstrate the direct correlation between traumatic childhood events and alterations in the immune system.
Further research into this connection has suggested that repeated exposure to corticosteroids and catecholamines during chronic stress may have a profound and lasting effect on the developing central nervous system (CNS). This, in turn, may interfere with proper endocrine and immune function later in life.
- Early Death
I know, early death isn’t a chronic disease, but the findings of the ACE study in this area are too staggering not to mention. People with six or more ACEs died, on average, nearly 20 years earlier than those who did not report them. This comes from a study published in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine.
Why People with Chronic Illness Can’t Just “Get Over It”
If you experienced extensive trauma in your childhood, there’s a reason you can’t just “get over it”. When someone says that, not only are the being insensitive, they are literally asking the impossible. They might as well ask you to spontaneously change your eye color while speaking a foreign language you’ve never so much as heard a word of.
They might as well ask you to spontaneously change your eye color while speaking a foreign language you’ve never so much as heard a word of.
This doesn’t mean that you can’t recover, however. Recovery is possible, it just doesn’t happen overnight. A combination of counseling, behavioral therapy, and autobiographical writing can be very effective in addressing the core issues surrounding your chronic disease.
It’s like I’ve said so many times before, once you get to the root of any chronic condition, the easier it is manage and heal.
When you’re ready, set some time aside for yourself and get your ACE score. You may be amazed and enlightened by looking at your chronic illness from this perspective. (My score is 8, by the way. I don’t mind sharing.)
For a more in-depth look at how childhood trauma affects adult well-being, check out this book by former elected San Diego City attorney and domestic violence expert, Casey Gwinn: