Childhood adversity brings lifelong negative effects

Another study on the lasting effects of childhood adversity has recently been released. No surprise, childhood experiences have a lifelong impact on our mental and physical health that is more complex and pervasive than we sometimes imagine.

A collaborative study between Kaiser Permanente Medical Care Program and the US Centers for Disease Control examined over 17,000 middle aged, middle class patients and matched current health status against 10 categories of negative childhood experiences.

Volunteers were asked about childhood emotional, physical and sexual abuse; physical or emotional neglect; and household dysfunction including violence, substance use, household members in prison, chronic mental illness in a household member or if the individual was not raised by both biological parents, as in cases of divorce.

On average, negative childhood experiences occurred 50 years before the study took place.

Each adverse event was given a score of one point and there were no extra points for multiple similar experiences, so if a person grew up with two alcoholic parents rather than just one, it would still only be marked as one point. Similarly, if a person experienced abuse many times from different people, it would count as one point.

As a result, this study probably underestimated the actual level of abuse and neglect suffered by participants.

Among this group, which was broadly representative of middle class America, only one third had experienced no childhood adverse events as defined above.

Once an individual received a point in one category there was an 87 per cent likelihood of at least one other category also being present. One in six had a score of four or more and ten percent scored five or higher.

People who scored four or less were four times more likely to suffer chronic depression than those with no childhood adverse events and their likelihood of attempting suicide increased by a factor of 1,250 per cent.

With four or more points, individuals were 550 per cent more likely to suffer from alcoholism in adulthood and with a score of six or more the likelihood of becoming an intravenous drug user increased 4,600 per cent.

Physical health also seems to be affected by childhood experiences and this study found that as childhood adverse events increased, so did the likelihood of liver disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and coronary heart disease.

Numbers like these point to the staggering importance of early life experiences in shaping our mental and physical health throughout life. Given the magnitude and complexity of the problem, it is not realistic to think we can deal with all of the life-long consequences in a meaningful way simply by treatment after the fact.

As a society we need to prevent abuse, neglect and family dysfunction before they occur, this is the only way to effectively protect our children and allow them to meet their full potential in life.


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