At this point it safe to assume that most people understand there is a correlation between childhood trauma and mental health. What is less commonly discussed, however, is the correlation between childhood trauma and physical conditions, such as heart disease and lung cancer.
Although it isn’t talked about much, this isn’t necessarily a new idea. In fact, the CDC began to investigate the correlation between childhood trauma and adult diseases in the early 90s. And yet, even today, the link isn’t commonly known or understand, nor has the way doctors approach childhood trauma and adult illness changed much.
Dr. Nadine Burke Harris, founder and CEO of the Center for Youth Wellness in San Francisco’s Bayview Hunters Point, is seeking to change all that, however. In her 2014 TED talk, Dr. Harris began by making a bold analogy that puts into prospective the pervasive damage childhood trauma can have on future health.
“In the mid-’90s, the CDC and Kaiser Permanente discovered an exposure that dramatically increased the risk for seven out of 10 of the leading causes of death in the United States,” she said. “In high doses, it affects brain development, the immune system, hormonal systems, and even the way our DNA is read and transcribed. Folks who are exposed in very high doses have triple the lifetime risk of heart disease and lung cancer and a 20-year difference in life expectancy.”
Triple the risk of heart disease and lunch cancer. And a 20-year difference in life expectancy. If that isn’t enough to make you stop in your tracks, I don’t know what is.
Dr. Harris goes on to say, “And yet, doctors today are not trained in routine screening or treatment. Now, the exposure I’m talking about is not a pesticide or a packaging chemical. It’s childhood trauma.”
As a survivor of childhood trauma, I found it difficult to read the above quote and not pause for a moment and wonder exactly how much my early experiences might have impacted my long-term health. I have to assume that most survivors feel the same.
It’s pretty difficult to fully understand the long-term damage childhood trauma can cause, and even though I lived through it, I’m still learning more every day about how far-reaching the damage has been.
Experts have developed a few tools to assess the correlation between childhood trauma and adult illness. The most popular is the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) questionnaire that was developed by the Dr. Vincent Felitti along with the CDC. According to a recent article by KQED News, the ACE consists of 10 categories of abuse. Doctors explore each patient’s level of exposure by asking if he or she had experienced any of the ten categories before the age of eighteen. The categories range from emotional abuse to substance abuse to divorce. Answering yes to a category of abuse scores one point, with the highest score being 10. During Felitti’s original study using the ACE questionnaire, he found that 67 percent of the population answered yes to at least one category, and 12.6 percent said yes to four or more categories.
Those are pretty staggering statistics, folks. It seems the threat of childhood trauma and future health concerns is pretty universal, spanning across racial and socio-economic lines. In fact, Dr. Harris did most of her early research in one of the poorest and most underserved areas of San Francisco, while Dr. Felitti’s early research was conducted in a population that was 70 percent Caucasian and 70 percent college-educated.
As a father, I think a lot about breaking the cycle of childhood trauma. I think anyone who has been through childhood trauma does. It’s harder than you’d think, but I know my children’s upbringing is far better than the one I experienced.
Yet when I read about the impact childhood trauma can have on an adult’s emotional and physical wellbeing, I cannot help but wonder what is in store for me — and it makes me even more cautious about my relationship with my children.
Ultimately, Dr. Harris’ goal is to change the way medical providers view childhood trauma and its correlation with future health concerns, in order to include a history of childhood trauma as a pre-indicator of future illness. She sums this all up pretty nicely in the conclusion of her TED talk, saying: “30 years from now, the child who has a high ACE score and whose behavioral symptoms go unrecognized, whose asthma management is not connected, and who goes on to develop high blood pressure and early heart disease or cancer will be just as anomalous as a six-month mortality from HIV/AIDS. People will look at that situation and say, ‘What the heck happened there?’ This is treatable.”
I’m with Dr. Harris. I’d like to see doctors take into account a patient’s history of childhood trauma. I think it will change the way doctors approach diagnosis and treatment, and it will ultimately shed light on something that is both pervasive and damaging, and hopefully promote change.