What is the ACE Study?

Last week, we discussed Dr. Vincent Felitti’s discovery of the link between adult obesity and child sexual abuse. From Jane Ellen Stevens’s article:

In 1990, Felitti presented his findings at a meeting of the North American Association for the Study of Obesity in Atlanta. Its members told him he was naïve to believe his patients, and they loudly denigrated the study. However, Dr. David Williams, then a researcher from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) was intrigued. “He told me that people could always find fault with a study of 100 people,” says Felitti, “but not if there were thousands. I said that wouldn’t be a problem.”

Felitti worked with with Dr. Robert Anda, a medical epidemiologist at the CDC, to study 10 risk factors. Physical, verbal, and sexual abuse, as well as physical and emotional neglect were all examined. Others factors included an alcoholic or mentally ill parent, an imprisoned family member, a mother who was being abused, and the loss of a parent through abandonment or divorce. The study was named the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study.

The ACES Too High website sheds more light on the study:

These adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) cause kids to have a hard time learning, making friends and trusting adults. They can’t keep up in school, so they shut down or get in fights. They’re the “problem” kids. Schools suspend them. There’s lots of ways for kids to cope with their trauma.  Alcohol. Drugs. Smoking. Food. Kids become daredevils and break their bones. Sleep around and get STDs. Grow up too fast and become workaholics.

All this helps numb painful memories: Years of beatings by dad, who also walloped a kid’s siblings and mom. Enduring forced sex by an uncle who visited regularly. Being rousted out of bed at 2 a.m. by a drunk mother to be yelled at for hours. These kids’ coping “drug of choice” – smoking, drinking, food, sex, work – helps them escape from the misery of feeling like failures or that, somehow, they were responsible for the trauma they experienced. It also helps them take the edge off their feelings of anxiety, depression, loneliness  and abandonment when our institutions further traumatize them by suspending them from school, by putting them in dysfunctional foster homes, by restraining them or putting them in isolation. Places where they ask them: “What’s wrong with you?” instead of “What happened to you?”

The double whammy of the toxic effects of severe stress on a developing brain and years of coping behaviors — which kids regard as solutions, not problems, even into adulthood — have long-term effects. When they’re adults, the trauma they experienced as a child reaches from the past to deal another cruel blow —  chronic diseases that appear when they’re adults. Diabetes. Heart disease.  Depression. Lung cancer. The list goes on. The diseases that cost our country billions of dollars economically, and an incalculable cost emotionally.

What you should know about ACE:

  • Only 33 percent of us have no ACE.
  • ACE indicators rarely appear alone — if there’s one type of childhood trauma, there’s a 87 percent likelihood that there are others.
  • ACE are very common, even in predominately white, middle- to upper-middle class college-educated Americans.

This blog is the second of a 3-part series on the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study. Learn more about the study and Dr. Felitti’s findings here. For more information on the long-term effects of child sexual abuse, visit D2L.org/Statistics.

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