Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs): Fact, Not Fate

A portion of the programs and grantmaking at NCHT are driven by the ACES (adverse childhood experiences) research study published by Dr. Vincent Felitti and Dr. Robert Anda around 1995. The ACEs study tells the story of how trauma impacts the body and ultimately our community long term. Present day, this study begins to tell the story of how we are able to combat and mitigate the impact of ACEs with positive childhood experiences (PCEs).

The 10 ACEs measured prior to the child’s 18th birthday include:

  • Physical, sexual, or verbal abuse
  • Physical or emotional neglect
  • Witnessing your parent/guardian being abused
  • Losing a parent/guardian
  • Having a family member who is:
    • depressed or diagnosed with a mental illness
    • Addicted to alcohol or another substance
    • Incarcerated

In 2020, the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS) collected ACEs data in Wyoming residents. The 2020 results showed:

  • 63.8% of Wyomingites with at least 1 ACE.
  • 1.8 is the average number of ACEs reported
  • 19.5% of Wyomingites reported 4 or more ACEs.

Incarceration, domestic violence, sexual abuse and mental illness were reported at twice the national average or very close to it in Wyoming. The long-term effects of ACEs have led to shocking results. This exposure dramatically increases the risk for 7/10 of the leading causes of death in the U.S. In high doses, trauma effects the immune system, hormonal systems, and even the way DNA is read and transcribed. People 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. Humans convert childhood trauma into organic disease later in life. Why?

Trauma is witnessing or experiencing an event that involves actual or the threat of injury, death, or a serious physical danger. An easy way to conceptualize this is to imagine taking a walk in the woods and running into a pack of wolves. The physical reaction to the wolves sends a biological reaction through the body, often referred to as the fight or flight response. A few examples include an increased release of stress hormones, release of glucose, and blood flow increasing. Now imagine that threat response going off each time a child returns home to their abusive caregiver.

The correlation discovered within the ACEs study can be discouraging, however, PCEs research provides guidance and directs next steps. The brain is adaptable and has the ability to change throughout a person’s life. Meaning, although a person’s body and brain have been wired a certain way through childhood, there is still opportunity for intervention to rewrite what’s known.

Research shows strengthening economic support for families, changing negative social norms, ensuring a strong start for children, teaching healthy coping skills, connecting youth to safe and caring adults and activities, and intervening with families to lessen immediate and long-term harms can reduce the impact of ACEs in communities and individuals and build resilience.

The ACEs study provides the opportunity to start asking “what happened to you?” Instead of “what’s wrong with you?” when serving the community. ACEs offers a new vantage point to better understand each other and ourselves and to explore opportunities to intervene. Remember, ACEs are fact – not fate.