We can prevent the health consequences of childhood trauma

A student works on an activity sheet at New Song Community Learning Center in West Baltimore in July. There have been intensifying efforts across the country to confront so-called "adverse childhood experiences," or ACEs, as research studies pile up showing how chronic trauma affects brain development, or creates greater risks of physical and behavioral health problems down the line.

The frequent sounds of gunshots. Physical or sexual abuse by a parent or close relative. Watching a family member shoot up heroin. The anxiety of worrying about mom or dad in prison. Sadly, children throughout the United States deal with these types of traumatic events every day, and we know it is ravaging their long-term health.

The Centers for Disease Control provided further proof of that Tuesday with the release of its most comprehensive report to date about the impact of such adverse childhood experiences, or ACES as they are known in the medical world. Researchers identified trauma as a health problem long ago, but the CDC report is the agency’s first time defining how many Americans are living with these experiences.


The agency used survey data from more than 144,000 adults from 25 states and found that 60% reported at least one bad childhood experience. One in six people across the United States has experienced four or more kinds of adverse childhood experiences, the CDC found. Women, American Indian and Alaskan Natives, and African Americans were more likely to experience four or more of these experiences.

The data is eye opening and expands the notion of what some might think about who in our society has troubling childhoods. Trauma is often looked as a problem of inner city neighborhoods and poor families. In reality, any of us could very well know somebody who has endured such an experience.


These experiences have a direct correlation on a person’s lifespan and quality of life. Those who lived through these experiences as children were at higher risk of dying from five of the top 10 leading causes of death, the CDC found. The larger the number of negative experiences, the higher the risk for health problems. Adults with the most traumatic incidents increased their chances of one day suffering from chronic health conditions, depression, smoking addictions, heavy drinking, and socioeconomic challenges like unemployment, compared to those reporting no experiences, the report found.

The good news that came out of the report is that CDC officials believe that like any other public health problem, the impact of these experiences is preventable. Intervention can also help lessen the impact.

Using 2017 data, the agency found that preventing adverse experiences could reduce the number of adults who had heart disease by as much as 13%, or by 1.9 million cases. It could have reduced the number of adults who were overweight or obese by as much as 2%, or by 2.5 million cases. Addressing bad childhood experiences could also have a substantial impact on what some say is a mental health crisis facing the country. The homeless population for one is often made up of people with untreated mental health issues. How many of them never dealt with a traumatic experience as a child? Had these childhood issues been dealt with, the country could have reduced the number of adults with depression by as much as 44% in 2017, or by 21 million cases.

Preventing bad experiences can also influence other parts of a person’s life, including increasing the odds that they do well in school and are able to have successful careers as adults. Left untreated, the estimated societal costs are hundreds of billions of dollars a year.

The sad consequences of bad childhood experiences outlined in the report is nothing new. Researchers at universities such as Harvard and Johns Hopkins have studied the issue for nearly two decades. The CDC and Kaiser Permanente first published an ACES study in 1998. The wide berth of the data provided by the newest research helps to better define the extent of the problem and bring more national attention to the issue. The CDC can use the data to help develop a national strategy that encourages institutions, including schools, health departments, social services agencies and others, to work together on strategies.

Locally, many people are already working on initiatives. We have written before about efforts by City Councilman Zeke Cohen to turn Baltimore into a trauma-responsive city. More than 56% of children in Baltimore have experienced at least one traumatic event in their lives. Other institutions within the city have also independently taken this strategy. Schools throughout the city use restorative practices to help kids work through their behavioral issues rather than punishing them. We encourage other communities in the state to adopt similar strategies.

There are already generations of families living with untreated trauma. Let’s stop the cycle.